James Cole Clay has been working as a film critic for the better part of a decade covering new releases, blu ray reviews and the occasional drive-in cult classic. His writing is dedicated to discovering social politics through diverse voices, primarily focusing on Women In Film and LGBTQ cinema.
David Michod’s THE KING, starring the instantly-iconic leading man Timothee Chalamet (bowl cut and all), is caught somewhere in the middle of a big-budgeted bloody war epic and a ripe coming of age tale.
The period piece is set during 15th century England, and it is a bit too eager to prove its worth on both fronts. That conflict prevents the final product from being fully satisfying. The script, written by Michod and Joel Edgerton (who appears in a supporting role), takes the adaptation (of many stories from Shakespeare’s Henriad) and uses it to tell a story about the how inherited violence of previous generations affects a reluctant king’s journey towards peace and discovering his own humanity beyond the crown.
This adaptation largely works well in broad strokes as it delivers on claustrophobic battle sequences and treasonous collusion that make most period pieces gratifying watching experiences. Michod and Egerton are looking to have it both ways, presenting ideas about finding morality within a monarchy, and still going for the jugular. There’s a lot of room for THE KING to operate inside the realms of spectacle and more subdued scenes that have the performances shine. Either way, as good as many of the elements are, they are a bit less than the sum of their parts.
As philosophical as Michod’s film can be, that type of meticulous thinking is spared upon the plotting that follows young Hal (Chalamet), a prince of England who has been given the cold shoulder by his father, King Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn in a minor role), a brutish ruler who has let anger consume his heart and therefore his kingdom. Hal, who is well on his way into becoming Henry V, lives a carefree life of frivolity that has him palling around with his mate Falstaff (Edgerton who is giving off major Russell Crowe vibes), a retired war hero who is described as having a respect for war but doesn’t lust after the rewards it brings.
Hal is forced to visit his father’s court to hear the news that the King is near the end of his life, and the throne is being given to younger brother Thomas (Dean-Charles Chapman). He has no qualms abdicating the throne for a life of leisure, despite his quest for peace in uniting England and France under British rule. Hal has a bit of indoctrination into the price and politics of being a king which means shedding some blood when challenged.
King Charles of France of his son Prince Louis (Robert Pattinson speaking in an incredibly distinct French accent) continuously taunt Hal-Henry’s right to the throne. Seemingly wanting to deflect the insults so they don’t turn into a war he seeks counsel from Chief Justice William (Sean Harris), who wallows in the glory of war even if his aims guidance seems to be earnest, and the Arch Bishop of the Christian church is touting dark aged ideas. He then brings on his neglected friend Falstaff to assist in the push against France and perhaps balance out the lunacy that’s plaguing his inner circle.
All of these baptisms by fire bring ebbs and flows of dramatic tension paired with gripping performances that Chalamet confidently handles. Michod asks a lot of the young star who has a physicality that he hasn’t displayed in his career thus far while keeping the fragility of his youthful charm intact. Chalamet, who hails from New York, speaks in a British accent that settles in nicely after a few scenes work out the auditory kinks. It showcases his multilingual skills yet again, speaking French. Surefire as ever, Chalamet is able to carry the weight of a leading man while finding moments of character. His star quality is undeniable, while Michod finds many curious-looking faces and English dialects to chew the scenery. It makes the setting have a vitality that is lost on other period pieces.
THE KING isn’t quite the quirky post-modern take on monarchies like last year’s THE FAVOURITE, but Michod and Edgerton’s script finds ways to play upon modern sensibilities for those who may be turned off by all the talk of crowns and swords. They are looking for a larger indictment on systemic tyranny that still goes on in this world today, yet they know the importance of staying rooted in the setting that is set up beautifully. A lot of the work is done by the dimly lit photography Adam Arkapaw (ASSASSIN’S CREED), who finds an illuminating balance that makes the moody set dressings pop when the visuals get purposefully murky.
This is a film that is a bit at odds with itself. It finds the truth within its moral center and only takes shape in fits and starts, namely in the best scene of the film (that features Chalamet receiving much-needed judgment by Lily-Rose Depp, who plays a French princess who is much wiser than the king). At a staggering two hours and 20 minutes, THE KING has only pockets that needed tightening up. Cobbling together Shakespeare’s prose into a story of epic proportions would be challenging for any filmmaker to undertake, and in light of many narrative conflicts, Michod’s work handles it with grace.
Grade: B 🗡️🗡️👑
THE KING hits Netflix on November 1.