Director: David Michod
Writers: David Michod / Joel Edgerton
Cast: Timothee Chalamet, Joel Edgerton, Robert Pattinson, Ben Mendelson, Lily-Rose Depp, Sean Harriss.
Shakespeare’s timeless narratives have long been cheekily toyed and experimented with to varying degrees of success, but when the solid talents of Director/Writer Michod and Actor/Director/Writer Edgerton decide to get their hands in (The Bard’s) clay, what results is an artistically rich and thrilling journey worth taking.
Conceived on Bondi Beach, Sydney, long standing Aussie mates and collaborators David Michod and Joel Edgerton wanted to play with the much loved story of King Henry V and give it modern relevance. With rising ‘artthrob’ Timothee Chalamet taking the throne, the film hints at current themes of vicarious international relations, and the ego-driven, impulsive reactions of world leaders that could trigger explosive wars. Still giving it historical context, we’re taken back to the 15th century and into the world of drunken and slovenly Prince Hal, recklessly tossing about with his youth with the loyal rock-like companion Falstaff by his side, who nudges him to be responsible and heed his father’s call to see him.
When war-mongering King Henry IV (Ben Mendelson) dismisses his son as unworthy of succession to the throne and claims his second son will succeed, Hal (Timothee Chalamet – who becomes Henry V) attempts to save his younger brother from certain demise as he goes into battle, much to his brother’s disgust and shame. Actor chemistry sparks in the brief scenes in which Mendelson and Chalamet meet as father and son, particularly in Mendelson’s deathbed moment when he claims Hal “must be king” as he weakly claws at the young prince’s straggly hair. One can only imagine how riveting these two very present and dynamic actors would be with more screen-time together.
Chalamet transforms quickly into the clean-cut, bowl-haired King Henry V, clumsily finding his feet in his father’s shoes and navigating between sudden kingly responsibilities and his pacifist beliefs. The wary and vulnerable young king is enflamed when he receives a ball as a gift from the French Dauphin. This seemingly condescending and baiting act triggers the king, who struggles with how to respond. When he is sent an assassin from France who calmly claims “I’ve come to assassinate you”, Henry’s unstable position is undermined and to prove he is no lightweight, England is ordered to take arms with France which culminates in the famous Seige of Harfleur in Normandy.
The King is worth seeing for the array of strong performances alone, all supported by a modernised Shakespearean-esque script that still manages to flow poetically. Mendelson commands the screen with his flickering charisma and plays King Henry IV with an effortless sense of power. Taking charge of the screen in the opening dining scene, Mendelson sets us on edge from the start. Edgerton brilliantly takes one of Shakespeare’s most endearing and richly drawn characters in the role of Falstaff and gives him an exquisite weight and warmth that quickly charms and provides a steady hold for the audience throughout the film. When he’s not on screen, there almost seems a sense of lacking, like that solid, grounded friend whose absence fills the room when they leave a group.
Likewise Edgerton’s sturdiness provides a dynamic contrast to the flighty insecurity of Chalamet’s King. Chalamet strikes a tricky balance between a naive vulnerability and a commanding power that forces its way through. It is powerfully evident that this actor is on his way to becoming the biggest movie star of his generation, but what is it about him? His gentle good looks aside, Chalamet has a flowing well of emotion that’s always under the surface and glimmers through his eyes. It allows him to draw us into any role he plays, something about him feels relatable so that we gladly follow him on the journey.
This is most powerfully at play in a thrilling edgy scene towards the end of the film between Henry V and William, his military advisor (Sean Harris) when the king begins to question the war he waged on the French. Chalamet’s dark and dynamic eyes make us sit upright as he orders William to “stay up there” on his dressing chair. Michod’s ability to create unnerving tension in a scene combined with these two compelling talents is worth watching the film for alone.
Perhaps the most surprising and satisfying performance in The King comes from Twilight star Robert Pattinson, who worked with Michod on The Rover (2014). Pattison cracks an audacious French Dauphin and his two monologues delivered to Henry are jolting and imposing, giving the film refreshing colour with dangerous humour.
Adam Arkapow’s cinematography (DOP: Macbeth / Top of The Lake) must be mentioned as his painterly lighting and beautiful colour tones make many scenes look like things you want to touch or step into. Together with Michod’s direction he creates a dirty realism that also seems like moments taken from exquisite art pieces from The British Museum.
Michod’s ability to create an earthy, dirty and understated atmosphere of realism runs through the film. He tells his story without pretence, taking us into the ‘guts’ of it. We feel particularly thrown about in the muddy battle of Normandy, where cinematographer Adam Akrapaw’s brilliant work is on display. It seems Michod does not want to glamorise war but rather take us into the rawness and futility of it all.
There is no need to have any background knowledge of Shakespeare’s Henry V to find pleasure in The King. Michod and Edgerton bring history and a taste of the Bard’s language to modern audiences effectively in an engrossing, medieval tale for the masses.
The King is now showing in select cinemas for a short time before it’s Netflix release.
Written by Nick Dale