The King, on all accounts, should be a home run—it has Timothée Chalamet, Robert Pattinson, men rolling around in the mud, and it’s released on Netflix, meaning its mass of Twitter fans can watch it right from their bedroom, free of charge. The film initially gained traction when its trailer was released and people drooled over Timothée Chalamet’s dirt–stained face and messy hairstyle. Even within hours of its release, people were already talking about Robert Pattinson and his weird accent. Yet, despite the fact that The King seemed primed for success, it fumbled with a boring plot, peculiar pacing, and some uninspired performances.
To be fair to The King, director David Michôd has attempted to cram three plays of Shakespeare’s Henriad—Henry IV parts 1 and 2 as well as Henry V—into two hours and twenty minutes of film. Onstage, one of these plays would easily last three hours, with intermissions. The task is a gargantuan one, and it explains the majority of The King’s peculiar structure—the first hour is focused on the events of the Henry IV plays, and the latter focuses on Henry V. Before its release, advertising around the film hesitated to suggest it was an adaptation of Shakespeare, likely because the very idea of Shakespearean drama is often boring to audiences, but to ignore this fact of the film is misleading. The events are pulled from these three plays, and its characters are directly transferred. Even if scenes are changed, Falstaff is still Shakespeare’s darling drunkard, and Hal his brash king.
But what exactly happens in The King? Its first hour is about Hal (Chalamet), the heir to the English throne, who spends the majority of his time romping around with his raucous friend Falstaff (Joel Edgerton). His father, Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn), seems near–death and is dealing with the recent rebellion of Hotspur (Tom Glynn–Carney). Hal steps up as Prince of Wales in battling with Hotspur, which ultimately leads to his ascension to king, and the latter half of the film deals with Hal’s decision to reconquer France, to which he thinks he has a legitimate claim. It is here that the Dauphin (Pattinson), the French heir, comes head to head with Hal, leading to the famous Battle of Agincourt.
If this all sounds rather boring, it’s because it is. What makes this story interesting is character relations and political development, but the film throws its audience into its complex structure a little too quickly. The King, despite being hesitant about its Shakespearean roots, is much easier to understand having read its source material—otherwise, everything feels a little rushed and overwhelming. Attempting to cram three plays into one movie is The King's downfall. It tries to reach three separate climaxes within the span of two and a half hours, but halfway through the first, its audience has lost interest.
The King also takes itself too seriously. Falstaff, in his source material, is raucous, fun, and very often drunk—he flees from battle, lies to his best friend, and wreaks havoc almost everywhere he goes. However, The King takes Falstaff’s witty conversation and makes him an all–out strategic genius, changing any humorous moments into wry ones. Falstaff, the one hope for some joy in this film, is made out to be a bitter, veteran alcoholic who has very little care for his own life. Still, despite how this alters the DNA of the character, Joel Edgerton is the emotional heart of the film. He is intelligent, caring, and worn out—the only person Hal can trust in these frightening and dark times. Falstaff’s character is given much deeper development than in Shakespeare, an inspired and interesting choice on the filmmaker’s part. However, in shifting his character from being comic relief to being an intelligent war vet, the film loses a much–needed source of humor in the dreary, unpleasant world of 15th–century England.
Some amusing moments, on the other hand, feel misplaced. The Dauphin, while certainly portrayed well by an unhinged Robert Pattinson, has a heady French accent, makes fun of Hal’s “giant balls with a tiny cock,” and spends his most emotionally–charged moment flailing around in the mud in too–heavy armor. His character feels disconnected from the movie, creepy, strange, and only present for about fifteen minutes. Another criminally underwritten part is that of Catherine of Valois (Lily–Rose Depp), Hal’s French fiancée who challenges him on his claim to the throne. She says that “all monarchy is illegitimate,” and is clearly much smarter than everyone around her. It’s Catherine, not Hal, who deserves the spotlight in this film.
Despite the obvious draw from Shakespeare, The King is its own film. Most important is its dialogue, which is a peculiar mash–up of modern English and a bastardized old English (proper old English would be impossible for audiences to decipher). One success of the film, however, is in its modern speaking patterns—Henry IV tells a member of his court that he will “hang you by your fucking neck,” while the film also incorporates some obvious olden markers, like “hisself” and “I know not.” While it’s clearly an anachronistic choice, it’s a compelling one, creating a balance between a completely modern English adaptation and a hard–to–parse historically accurate one.
Still, despite these good moments, this is not Timothée Chalamet’s best performance. He handles some moments well, such as his speech before the Battle of Agincourt, but other times, he reads as a bored, young idiot. While this was Chalamet’s grab at leading–man status, the part is watery and his performance occasionally falters—despite the fact that everyone and their mother adores Chalamet, he feels particularly uncharismatic and uninspired in this film. Joel Edgerton far overshadows him, giving a moving, varied performance, and the audience finds themselves caring more about him than the monotonous, moody Hal.
While The King is not particularly good, it’s not horrendous, either. Some of its performances are good, some are okay, and some are downright strange. Still, many watching the film for Chalamet and Pattinson will be disappointed with its confusing plot and pacing, no matter how cute Timothée looks in his old–timey armor.