I’m not entirely sure why I doubted the talent of Timothée Chalamet. I adored him in Call Me By Your Name, but was yet to be equally stunned by subsequent performances, leading me to wonder whether he might fail to reach the glorious heights that got him an Oscar nomination. Well, consider my humble pie eaten as not only is he exceptional as ‘Hal’, King Henry V of England, in David Michôd’s pseudo-Shakespeare adaptation, The King, he also delivers another performance that should put him in the sights of Oscar voters once again.
After the misstep that was War Machine, David Michôd makes good on the promise he made with his debut film Animal Kingdom, managing to wrap up the decade with another grand and essential Australian film. Pulling from Shakespeare’s Henriad plays, The King is masterfully co-written by Michôd and Joel Edgerton, and in expert fashion, the two tease out a modern allegory for a story that is set in the 15th Century.
Hal’s father, Henry IV (a sweaty, sickly Ben Mendelsohn), is near death. Hal’s brother, Thomas of Lancaster (a furious Dean-Charles Chapman), is expected to take the throne, but after an embarrassment on the battlefield which outlays his failures as a potential leader, the title of ‘King of England’ falls to Hal. Initially, the newly minted Henry V wishes to lead a peaceful, diplomatic, hopeful future for England, free from battles and wars, but immediately he is thrust into a long war with France. With his advisor, William (Sean Harris), and his battle-ready companion, Sir John Falstaff (Joel Edgerton), by his side, the English army makes way into France to tackle The Dauphin of France (Robert Pattinson) on his home ground.
The base plot may seem rote and familiar on paper, but what elevates The King above your average Shakespeare adaptation is the way that Michôd manages to explore the text that is the assessment of the overwhelming power that comes with machinations of politics. This is a finely tuned exploration of the devastation of politics, assessing the cruelty that inflicts leaders, where no matter how hopeful they may be, they will inevitably be consumed by the will of those around them. The parameters of the presumed trust of the Kings advisors are quietly damned at every moment.
The King is a patient film, taking its time to unfurl its narrative, quietly revealing its themes as each considered moment ticks by. This is a deep film, one where the violence of mankind is realised as a pit of mud that slowly and quietly consumes you. Come the conclusion, it has completely absorbed you.
Leading the charge is that central, powerful performance from Timothée Chalamet. His King is an observant leader, one who reasons with logic and grows from a drunken youth who everyone judges to be a nothing of a man, to a triumphant, uniting figurehead. Edgerton’s Falstaff acts as a third arm for the King, his role as the ‘military guide’ for battle has him monitoring moments, biding his time until it is right for him to voice his concern or thoughts. It’s clear that Edgerton relishes this role, with his Falstaff being a mammoth creature with a thick, brute of a voice that shows an age of combat. The King celebrates the quiet of Falstaff, and it’s the relationship that he has with Hal that is the most endearing of the film.
Within this relationship, The King shows itself as a brutal, excoriating warning siren for the left. It works as a reckoning to be cautious, to be a reasoned individual who is observant, who always questions those who are near you. It suggests that we should value the silence of your supposed enemies. Allusions of modern leaders like Barack Obama can be made here, with Hal preaching equality and unity at the start of his leadership, but come the end, he has become as sullied and soured by the grips of politics as his predecessors were. The sickly performance that Ben Mendelsohn gives as King Henry IV works as a desperate glimpse into the future for Hal, as well as any other subsequent leader. Hal tries to maintain his united England viewpoint, but the political machine rejects it like an unwelcome foreign body, spewing it onto the ground in disgust. What use is aspiring for a better future when the past has engineered a present that makes fostering that hope impossible?
For the politically inclined viewer, The King is like an addictive treacle, where a small lick will keep you satiated for a long, long time. I found myself falling deep into the themes of the film, being helped along by another overwhelming score from Nicholas Britell, and guided by the glorious cinematography from Adam Arkapaw. Each moment afforded me the opportunity to compare the past to the present. I found myself in a mire of despair about the state of politics around the world, where I was left with the question, ‘how does anyone in politics get anything good done for humanity?’
Given the current state of the world, I couldn’t help but walk away from The King thinking, maybe we should just tear everything down and start again. But then that is a notion that feeds into the violent core of humanity. We simply cannot help ourselves, ever pushing into the realms of our neighbours, ever conquering those who are already conquered. It is humanities plight, whether we like to admit it or not. We are doomed to consume ourselves by war and hate.
Chalamet’s Hal is a leader who understands this completely, and when he meets the gloriously over the top Robert Pattinson as the Dauphin of France on the battlefield, he finds a mildly arrogant prince who is out of his depth. Sure, he enjoys the chance to show off his army that is full of soldiers atop of horses, adorned in heavy ornate armour, but he is also impatient, and he fails to observe the battlefield for what it is: a muddy, bloody, beaten and broken chess board that he – the pathetic surrogate ‘King’ – has found himself cornered on, even if he does not know it. The climactic Battle of Agincourt is a brutal and desperate affair, and will easily stand as one of the finest modern battles on screen.
The third act revelations work as a reminder to all that we need to be as questioning of the leadership that we have, and as understanding of the perceived opponents that we are told to hate. Blind, untethered patriotism is a caustic entity, especially when it is removed from a questioning and cautious society. The moment of adulation that surrounds Hal upon his victory in France is terrifying, especially as he is informed that peace can only be attained via continued war, by continually conquering the ‘others’ of the world. It is this contradiction that feels like a foundational aspect of politics, and it is this that feels like the one thing that Michôd and Edgerton wish us to take away from the film: question the battles we are dragged into in the name of our countries, for they may never be the battles in the best interest of us.
Given how considered The King is with exploring its plot, it is a film that is best served with no distractions. If you have the opportunity, see this film in a cinema, you will be thankful that you did. For those who may come to the film on Netflix, please ensure to turn off your phone and remove anything that might interfere with the film – this is a film that rewards the patient viewer.
The King is a masterwork in filmmaking. David Michôd has crafted a film that is as complex as Animal Kingdom, layered and assured, and as important as that landmark film is. For everyone involved, this will be a career watermark where everything that they do after will be compared to this. An absolutely essential film.
Director: David Michôd
Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Sean Harris, Joel Edgerton
Writers: David Michôd, Joel Edgerton
The King is having a limited run in select cinemas around Australia during October prior to being released on Netflix. Seek out your local cinema and see it on the big screen.