Imagine a version of Shakespeare’s Henry V where Prince Hal is a lot less regal but a lot more whiny. Also imagine a version where Falstaff is never publicly rejected by Henry but instead becomes one of his leading generals. Furthermore, imagine that Robert Pattinson shows ups and does his best imitation of the obnoxious Frenchmen from Monty Python and The Holy Grail. Also, finally, imagine a film that’s based on three of Shakespeare’s most popular plays but which does’t include any lines from those plays. Imagine all of that and you’ve got The King.
Yes, The King is an odd film indeed. It’s also a very long film. You might expect that from a film based on three Shakespearean plays but, then again, since the film actually doesn’t feature any of Shakespeare’s celebrated language, you have to kind of wonder if it can actually claim to be a Shakespearean adaptation. For instance, if I made a film about a sullen prince named Hamlet but totally leave out “To be or not to be” or the part where he sees his father’s ghost, am I truly adapting Shakespeare or am I just making a film about a guy named Hamlet? Interestingly enough, while The King isn’t faithful to Shakespeare, it’s also not faithful to actual historical records. It’s not Shakespeare and, despite using the name of actual kings and nobles from the 15th Century, it’s not really historical. It could just as easily be about King Kevin and his struggle to lead the Land of Homily to victory over Possum Kingdom. It’s hard to really understand what the point of this film is.
Timothee Chalamet plays Prince Hal, who will eventually become King Henry V. Considering just how acclaimed Chalamet’s previous work has been (including receiving an Oscar nomination for Call Me By Your Name and probably coming close to getting a second one for Beautiful Boy as well), it’s a bit strange just how dull Chalamet is in this film. As played by Chalamet, the future King of England is alternatively petulant and whiny. He’s not happy about becoming king. He’s even less happy about having to behead those who have been accused of conspiring against him. He hopes to avoid war, even after the King of France taunts him by giving him a ball as an coronation present. Chalamet wanders through the film with an eternally glum expression on his face. When he has to rally the troops, he is unpleasantly shrill in a way that will remind viewers of one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s lesser performances.
Joel Edgerton, who also co-wrote the script, is a bit more convincing in the role of Falstaff. Instead of the cowardly (but wise) buffoon who appeared in Shakespeare’s plays, The King portrays Falstaff as being a great warrior who merely likes to drink too much. This, of course, means that Hal doesn’t have to publicly rebuke Falstaff or any of his friends but it also makes Falstaff a bit of a pointless character. In Shakespeare’s plays, both the rebuke of Falstaff and the subsequent hanging of Bardolph were meant to show that the once irresponsible Hal was now placing his role of king above all else. By removing that aspect of the tale, The King also removes the entire heart of the narrative. That said, Edgerton is at least convincing as a warrior.
As usually happens when it comes to British historical epics, the film leads up to an eventual battle between the British and the French. Robert Pattinson plays The Dauphin and gives one of the most brilliantly strange performances of 2019. Wearing a blonde wig and speaking in an exaggerated French accent, Pattison gets all of the dirtiest lines and he has fun with them. (“You have zee big balls,” The Dauphin says at one point, “and zee little cock!”) In fact, Robert Pattinson seems to be the only person in the film having any fun whatsoever. Chalamet looks miserable. Edgerton comes across like a professional. But Pattinson appears to be having the time of his life and you’re happy to see him if just because he provides a (too brief) respite from the film’s otherwise dour atmosphere.
As I said, The King is a strange film. I’m not really sure what the point of it was. The battle scenes are effectively bloody and the sets are all convincingly 15th century. But otherwise, this movie is too pointless and too long. Just because it’s about the 100 Years War doesn’t mean that film has to feel like a 100 hours.