'The King': Film Review | Venice 2019

Restrained yet majestic.

David Michôd directs Timothée Chalamet, Joel Edgerton, Robert Pattinson and Ben Mendelsohn in this free adaptation of Shakespeare's 'Henry' plays about leadership and war.

It's conspicuous that Shakespeare receives no screen credit as the source material of David Michôd's The King. Even though the film also dips into recorded history, simplifies the language and significantly changes the outcome of one key character, the first tetralogy of plays known as the Henriad unquestionably forms its pulsing core. Maybe the producers worried that advertising the literary pedigree would make it seem like homework? That would be a gross misrepresentation of a stirringly lucid drama that balances its muscular and contemplative sides with unerring judgment, harnessing quietly commanding performances to reflect on the vainglorious folly of power and "the doleful weight of war."

In this age of major stage productions being broadcast in movie theaters, big-screen Shakespeare adaptations have become less frequent, but television and streaming platforms are stepping into the breach. Recent years have seen the appointment viewing of the BBC and PBS' starry, multipart The Hollow Crown, its first season a more faithful presentation of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V, as well as Richard II, the play that precedes them; and Amazon's wrenching, modern-dress King Lear, led by an exceptionally fine Anthony Hopkins. Netflix continues that wave of highly watchable Shakespeare retellings with The King, which is as much a reinterpretation as a distillation in the intelligent screenplay by Michôd and one of his stars, Joel Edgerton.

Does that mean it's best viewed on a home screen? Sure, if that's the only option, though otherwise not, since this is a large-canvas treatment both epic and intimate in scale.

There's sweep but also understatement in the visual scheme of cinematographer Adam Arkapaw's muted, almost desaturated color palette and meticulously measured camerawork, and the production and costume designs of Fiona Crombie and Jane Petrie, respectively, which provide early 15th century period authenticity with minimal fuss. Of particular note is the exquisite use of natural light in many of the interior scenes, and chiaroscuro tones right out of Caravaggio for the candlelit nighttime interludes.

The performances also are deserving of the full big-screen impact, led by a characteristically whip-smart Timothée Chalamet as Henry V, forced to transform himself overnight from a "whoring fool," carousing in the lower-class tavern of London's Eastcheap quarter, into a reluctant monarch. Chalamet's Prince Hal grows increasingly steely as he inherits a crown he never sought and the onerous responsibilities that come with it, pulling him into armed conflicts that go against everything for which he stands.

As his partner in debauchery, Sir John Falstaff, whose past glories in battle have long since made way for a life of boozing and thieving, Edgerton carves himself a juicy role but never showboats. There's much less of the wisecracking hedonist here and more of the soulful, unfailingly honest friend who becomes an indispensable advisor to the young king once he starts dealing with the slippery royal court. The anchoring portrayal of trust, loyalty and deep fondness between these two in an environment full of self-serving operators gives the meaty drama a poignant human center.

There's also a welcome gravity to Falstaff as a man who respects war but doesn't lust for it. Edgerton and Michôd make winking acknowledgement that they are, in effect, rewriting Shakespeare when Falstaff on the eve of battle in Agincourt says: "I die here or I die of the bottle in Eastcheap. I think this makes for a better story."

If Falstaff and Hal both are skeptical of war, the opposite is true of impetuous young Hotspur (Tom Glynn-Carney), who opens the movie on a battlefield strewn with corpses, sharing a few cruel words with a dying rebel Scotsman before calmly plunging in his sword to finish him off. Glynn-Carney, who turned heads with his live-wire work in Sam Mendes' stage production of The Ferryman, makes a vivid impression with his volatile presence in the early action.

The other riveting turn that helps offset the deliberate pacing of the establishing scenes is that of Ben Mendelsohn, a resourceful talent who, like Edgerton, first worked with Michôd in the director's 2010 feature debut, Animal Kingdom. As Henry IV, fast slipping toward the grave but still determined to impose his overbearing will on a fractious kingdom, Mendelsohn responds to the upstart Hotspur's threat of rebellion with a weariness tinged with admiration. "Venomous boy," mutters Henry. "If only he were my son."

That conflict between a father driven by the urge to conquer and a wayward son who wants nothing to do with his feuds plants the internal division in Chalamet's Hal from the outset. The character is also defined by his compassion, demonstrated early on when he infuriates his ambitious younger brother Thomas (Dean-Charles Chapman), their father's default choice to ascend the throne, by upstaging him on the battlefield, no doubt saving his life in a clash against Hotspur.

The tough physicality of that fight is startling, with the pale, slender Chalamet at first looking like a delicate boy playing dress-up in his chainmail and armor, but then showing unexpected ferocity. It sets the tone for battle scenes in which the camera dives into the scrum of men more often than it pulls back, underscoring the human cost at all times.

The big fight of course is the Battle of Agincourt, where Hal's troops are vastly outnumbered by the French, led by the Dauphin (Robert Pattinson), son of King Charles VI. Pattinson previously worked with Michôd in his post-apocalyptic Australian Western, The Rover, and his casting here at first is a distraction. He speaks heavily French-accented English to better taunt Henry — "I enjoy to speak English. It is simple and ugly" — and tosses his lank hair like a foppish Kurt Cobain. But the performance is effective as his mockery pierces Hal's pride, even as the Dauphin is revealed to be an arrogant clown on his own power trip. Pattinson's flamboyance in the role also gooses the movie just when it needs a fresh shot of adrenaline.

The buildup to the brawling clash is superbly calibrated, with composer Nicholas Britell's sumptuous orchestral score — up to that point somber and moody — adding choral elements and acquiring greater ominousness and urgency with the arrival on French soil.

Throughout, the pacing of Michôd and editor Peter Sciberras is unhurried, which may prove problematic for home viewers in the early going but ultimately pays off in storytelling as crystalline as it is gripping.

This is especially true in the detailed account of England's fight strategy, when the military experience of the Earl of Dorset (Steven Elder) says retreat, but Falstaff says they can win, his plan amusingly based on an aching knee that tells him to expect rain that night. What's really notable about the war scenes though is the sobriety of the victories. There are no shouts of triumph, only the stricken faces of those surveying the dead. Even when Hal gives the order to slaughter French prisoners, his grave expression suggests the echo of something Falstaff told him months earlier: "Nothing stains the soul like killing."

The depiction of Hal through a modern anti-war lens is subtle, not strident, and never lifts the viewer out of the period. There's also the hint of an evolved, contemporary man in his willingness to heed the wisdom of women in two brief but significant scenes — one in which his sister Philippa, Queen of Denmark (Thomasin McKenzie), warns the fledgling monarch to act with caution in a court where few will speak the truth; and another with French princess Catherine of Valois (Lily-Rose Depp), offered to him in marriage as part of the country's surrender. Her candor makes him question the grounds on which he was drawn into the war, calling him "so easily riled, so easily beguiled."

That prompts him to take a closer look at William Gascoigne (Sean Harris), his chief adviser and the official counterpart to Falstaff's more unorthodox counsel. One of the key holdovers from Henry IV to his son, Harris' William is a wily behind-the-scenes player, always observing, gently influencing. Or not so gently, as it emerges in a tense confrontation scene.

At that moment it also becomes indisputably clear in Chalamet's fine-grained performance — some of the most moving moments of which are entirely internalized — that Hal has become a man to be reckoned with. He still wears the smooth complexion of youth, but his face bears the terrible burden of power. All hail.

Production companies: Plan B Entertainment, Porchlight Films, Yoki Inc., Blue-Tongue Films
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Joel Edgerton, Robert Pattinson, Ben Mendelsohn, Sean Harris, Tom Glynn-Carney, Lily-Rose Depp, Thomasin McKenzie, Andrew Havill, Dean-Charles Chapman, Steven Elder, Edward Ashley, Stephen Fewell, Tara Fitzgerald, Tom Fisher, Ivan Kaye
Director: David Michôd
Screenwriters: David Michôd, Joel Edgerton
Producers: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Liz Watts, David Michôd, Joel Edgerton
Executive producer: Christina Oh
Director of photography: Adam Arkapaw
Production designer: Fiona Crombie
Costume designer: Jane Petrie
Music: Nicholas Britell
Editor: Peter Sciberras
Visual effects supervisor: Andrew Jackson
Casting: Francine Maisler, Des Hamilton
Venue: Venice International Film Festival (Out of Competition)

Rated R, 140 minutes