Dir: David Michod. Starring: Timothee Chalamet, Joel Edgerton, Sean Harris, Lily-Rose Depp, Robert Pattinson, and Ben Mendelsohn. 15 cert, 140 mins
Robert Pattinson’s impression of a Frenchman in Netflix’s The King is a minor act of war. There’s no other possible interpretation. His post-Twilight career has been fascinating precisely because he’s never been careless in his choices. And, as Good Time and The Lighthouse proved, he’s also very skilled at accents. Which makes his appearance as the Dauphin in David Michod’s revisionist take on Shakespeare’s Henriad plays either a feat of performance art or deliberate trolling, thanks to its Pepe Le Pew tones and “er… how do you say?” laboured hesitancy. “I enjoy to speak English. It is simple and ugly,” he splutters at one point.
And yet, as a welcome moment of chaos in an otherwise exhaustingly solemn affair, his work is the undeniable highlight of The King. There is, admittedly, a slice of genius in the film’s concept: Michod and co-writer Joel Edgerton have sought to rip the history out of Shakespeare’s pages, trading in lengthy soliloquies for the mud, blood, and rage of the medieval battlefield. Not only does the film jettison the playwright’s language, but the film’s plot toys with the source material – Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V – with little concern for faithfulness.
The King’s interest is in Henry V (Timothee Chalamet), still a boy in many respects, whose ascendancy to the throne is sudden and uneasy. He is not his father’s (Ben Mendelsohn) favoured child, but the death of his brother (Dean-Charles Chapman) has given the kingdom no choice. As distrust in the former bad boy philanderer grows, Henry must face the weight of his own legacy. He despises the bloodshed his father revelled in, but what else is he to do when France (and the Dauphin) are goading him into war?
Yet, for all its reinventions (including a very different fate for Falstaff), the film goes the same way as most Shakespeare big-screen adaptations go, mistaking laboured reverence for dramatic intensity. Outside of Pattinson’s subversive contributions, The King is afraid of levity to the point that it mangles the story. We constantly hear characters talk about Henry as the “whoring fool” but, onscreen, he’s guilty of nothing more than sleeping in late and having tussled, boy band hair. It’s strange to see Chalamet’s theatre-dork-meets-cool-kid charisma so dramatically reined in here. The script gives him little to play with other than the opportunity to look pensive, as he delivers all his lines in a tortured whisper. Edgerton gets more room to run and breathe – his Falstaff is world-weary and caustic, having seen too much death to get caught up in the bickering of the royal court.
But the screenplay’s stiff approach to characterisation is the result of how much it’s trying to cram into one film. We have to wade through a quagmire of exposition to arrive at the Battle of Agincourt, as Michod then tries to introduce Henry’s wife, Catherine (Lily-Rose Depp), as swiftly as possible so he can wrap things up.
The King doesn’t give itself an easy task, certainly, but it also doesn’t need to spend so much of its time convincing us of its own seriousness. There’s more life to this story than it chooses to recognise.
The King is released in UK cinemas on 11 November. It will then debut on Netflix on 1 November
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