David Michôd's brooding riff on Shakespeare sees rising star Timothée Chalamet play both wastrel prince from Henry IV, and warrior king of Henry V. He convinces as both
Why is it that Shakespeare’s history plays always feel ripped from today's headlines? Perhaps it’s that the petty squabbles of those seeking power in the past aren’t that different from those in the present. Whether it's being waged on the battlefield or on Twitter, conflict is bruising and you always lose, even when you win.
Australian director David Michôd (Animal Kingdom, The Rover) gives us a loose, mud-spattered retelling of Henry IV (parts 1 and 2) and Henry V that's both brooding and pacy, dour and deeply satisfying. Gone is the Bard’s verse, and, along with it, the theatrical heroics of Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh's celebrated film versions. Instead, there's a heavy mood appropriate for a film concerned with unnecessary sacrifice.
We open on an island whose inhabitants are at war with one another (sound familiar?). The first on-screen life taken is that of a wounded Scottish soldier crawling through a battlefield of bodies after taking on Henry IV's mighty army. Later there’s a potential skirmish with the Welsh that’s settled by two knights having a royal rumble in full armour. Typical of Michôd’s action scenes, the scrappiness and barbarism of the fighting styles contrast with the grace and lucidity of the filmmaking.
While Henry IV is waging war, his eldest son is hungover in Eastcheap. Timothée Chalamet cuts a dashing Prince Hal, the hedonistic heir with no hunger for wielding power, although step up he must when his father’s pox-ridden body gives out. Off go Hal’s rock star locks, replaced by an indie bowl-cut, and Henry V is born. As an actor, Chalamet’s balletic physicality and soulful eyes are his greatest assets, and he uses both here to convincingly play both boy and man, wastrel prince and warrior king.
A moral pacifist is now on the throne, but warmongers are still in the room whispering in the King's ear. Enter Robert Pattinson as the smarmy Dauphin of France, happy to take on the novice monarch and his army. “I enjoy to speak the English,” he tells Hal at their first meeting. “It's simple and it's ugly.” If you enjoy your period epics with a touch of camp, Pattinson’s gleeful turn as this bitchy Frenchman should bring you plenty of joy; each comic appearance adds a moment of lightness to the gravity of Michôd’s film.
As impressive as these two young actors are, it’s Joel Edgerton as fallen knight John Fallstaff who leaves the biggest impression. The boastful coward of the plays is here replaced by a steely tactician who only speaks when he’s something to say, and Edgerton, so often given the role of the everyman, brings a hitherto untapped worldliness to his performance.
Henry V’s heroics at Agincourt are often deployed as propaganda (see Olivier’s 1944 effort), but Michôd’s outsider’s eye gives us something much more prickly, where the mood of a nation flies in the face of logic and reason, and an individual’s greed and vanity comes before king and country.
If you’re looking for a distraction from the chaos of British politics look elsewhere. Every second of The King is like looking in the mirror.
The King had its world premiere at Venice Film Festival and is streaming on Netflix from 1 Nov, with a UK cinema release in selected cinemas from 11 Oct