The King (***1/2) at least it’s not Shakespeare

The King – 2019

Director David Michôd
Screenplay David Michôd, Joel Edgerton based the works of William Shakespeare
Starring Timothée Chalamet, Joel Edgerton, Sean Harris, Lily-Rose Depp, Robert Pattinson, Ben Mendelsohn, Thibault de Montalembert

The King is a loose translation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, parts 1 and 2, along with Henry V. If there is a reason this film is understandable to people who aren’t English Literature Grad students, its because it is written by people who understand both Shakespeare and the modern language. I heard a lot about Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, but I never wanted to get the dictionary or footnotes version out to try to understand it. Seeing this makes me want to try.

Chalamet is the young Henry V, about to inherit the kingdom of England from his stubborn and ailing father, Henry IV (a perfectly cast Mendelsohn). The old king’s reign ends in disappointment, as chaos is abound and young Hal, as V is called, spends the majority of his time cavorting with friends, including Falstaff (Edgerton).

Once there is no escaping his fate, Hal moves forward to accept his duty somberly. He is separated from his friends, unfamiliar with his new counsellors, including William Gascoigne (Harris) and feeling the weight of their expectations. Soon he is convinced to enter into a war with France due to a complicated understanding of law, an insulting gift from The Dauphin (Pattison) and the word of an assassin who asks for clemency in exchange for his story.

Soon after, he discovers his friend Falstaff once more, convincing him to join him as his confidant and counsellor. Falstaff is overly measured in his words, which frustrates Hal and tests their relationship.

Edgerton’s Sir John Falstaff is the biggest selling point of The King. It’s almost as though he made the film just so he could play so plum a role. His accent is incredible, as is his stout appearance. The movement between disappointment to cautious support of his old friend is an excellent show of Edgerton’s underrated ability.

The story can’t get enough of his character, especially when contrasted with Chalamet’s relentlessly somber Hal. For whatever reason, the decision to make the subject of the movie into a one note performance by an actor obviously capable of more.

Pattison’s performance as The Dauphin is effective at showing the French in the apt light as cowardly, dastardly and ineffectual.

Harris is effective as the true villain of the story. The presentation of such questionable advice is obvious to the viewer when presented the logic of the information. Harris’ demeanor gives us the impression that at least he could be telling the truth. A lesser performance would have prevented consideration of the possibility.

As performances of one scene go, they don’t get much better than de Montalembert’s take on a defeated, incredulous and somewhat mad King Charles VI. He presents a man who has moved beyond ambition into a stark clarity that can only happen when almost all hope is gone. His last hope is that Henry V marry his daughter, portrayed by Depp. She gets to continue the vein of clarity with a speech to her betrothed that helps Hal more than any of his advisors outside of Falstaff.

The battles are entertaining. Michôd knows how to present a realistic battle as unglamorous and desperate, even for the most heroic. There is no mistaking the images presented when the armada moves toward Paris: the king rides with the rest of the men while the politicians and the holy men are carried over the filth.

The King is a good film. It could have benefitted with more range for the lead role. While I am not sure I will get through Branagh’s version in one, or even a dozen sittings, I am always happy to give Michôd and especially Edgerton a try at entertaining.

(***1/2 out of *****)

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