The King (2019)

Film Review

November 2019

The King

The King opens with unwarranted self-importance. The camera obsesses over a brooding Timothee Chalamet. Britell’s string-heavy soundtrack swells prematurely to some whispering in taverns. Not until Prince Henry stumbles, half-drunk, onto the throne, does the film earn its gravity. He trembles under the weight of the crown as Chalamet trembles under a weighty role. It works. Framed wide within the palace walls, a pile of red robes, Chalamet resembles a boy in his father’s clothes. His face flickers fear, resolve and pride in a single instant. And as he marches into war, we watch him gradually harden into the warrior king of legend.

Rather than ripping monologues word for word and shoehorning them into modern cinema, writers Michôd and Edgerton boldly find their own voice. They do an admirable job simplifying Shakespeare’s verse whilst retaining some of its essence. Little turns of phrase—“passing keeper of the prince’s puke” or “flounder like upturned beetles”—would have had me fooled. As if in defiance of Shakespeare altogether, a wonderfully unhinged Robert Pattinson as the Dauphin taunts, “I enjoy to speak English, it is simple and ugly.”

It is a good script; more polished than any period drama in recent memory. I do have minor issues with their reducing Henry’s religious zeal (a compelling aspect of the play) to a couple fleeting moments of prayer. But a sharp left turn in the film’s final act (which I won’t spoil) manages to elevate Shakespeare’s ending (who knew it possible).

The play was about the moral ambiguity of war, the lure of patriotism, man’s eternal scramble in the mud and, above all, a boy trying his best to be king. The King ticks all of these boxes and more. We even get to see the Battle of Agincourt brought to life/death in all its muddy, tactical, inspiring, suffocating glory. Shakespeare rewrote history; Michôd and Edgerton have rewritten Shakespeare. For the most part, they’ve succeeded.