Based on the evidence of David Michôd’s The King, Netflix will go to cinematic depths to showcase the quality of their productions. Their latest attempt is a loose Shakespearian adaptation, an atmospheric and brooding tale about Kings, successions, politics and wars. The battle of Agincourt, the highlight of its endeavour has all the recent hallmarks from the Game of Thrones playbook – The Battle of the Bastards, in particular, showing the brutal violence and swarming claustrophobia of being pinned in against other bodies. It’s also blessed with stunning cinematography, a perfectly weighted Nicholas Brittel soundtrack, and sound design that makes a positive example of Netflix’s contribution to cinema. There’s no doubting the technical achievements or the ambitions the streaming platform has, but it’s the substance that is hit and miss.
The King is a tough one to unpack because there are polarising elements which boil down to personal taste. It’s a slow burn narrative (which is not necessarily an issue) but has this burden of running longer than it should (or at least it feels like it does). While there are moments of levity and humour, The King is rigid in its ways, a style over substance that takes itself far too seriously. And of course, there are some silly accents at play – but more on that later.
But like any film about epic battles, power plays and royalty, there’s always a case where the narrative takes creative liberties with history, and Michôd and Joel Edgerton’s script is no exception. That in itself is always a tough sell because it’s always trying to appease towards a balance. Whether it fully achieves that, depends on your historical knowledge, but on this occasion, its Shakespearian mix of language doesn’t carry its intended desire. The condensed, straight-forward narrative means significant moments, especially Henry IV’s (Ben Mendelsohn) illness or a brother dying on the battlefield to prove his worth after being upstaged by Hal (which occur early on in the story) are not given the depth it should have received besides exposition. If anything, The King could have undoubtedly benefited from a TV show format that would put a lot of its direction into an episodic context. But the BBC already did so brilliantly in The Hollow Crown with an Avengers Assemble of British talent. It chose to take a big-screen risk, gambling on the talent of Timothée Chalamet as its big draw.
Chalamet is a talented young actor, and it’s impressive how quickly his stock has risen based on his performances in Beautiful Boy, Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name. But it’s here where it causes conflict.
The brooding vulnerability and subsequent ruthlessness are there to be seen as he handles all of the complexities of being king. He is the reluctant king who would rather enjoy his rebellious freedom than deal with politics, past grievances and a war between the French. In the solemn moments that acknowledge the full weight of the crown and the dialogue is focussed between a small company of people, you can tell why he is talked about with the highest respect. He’s reserved and would rather do a one-on-one battle with the enemy than lose his army through bloodshed. But as soon as the camera pulls back to reveal the bigger picture, he starts to lose his power. It’s not helped that most of his performance is incredibly one-note, never rising above a gravelly octave until the battle heavy third act (with the customary Braveheart speech – as you do). When a role is played to such a level, the harder it is to empathetically connect. On the battlefield, he looks out of place as a slim figure going toe-to-toe with big muscular men. Some would easily classify it as another obstacle for the character – he is an underdog and a young king who has to prove himself and his doubters by overcoming the odds. By that rationale, it works in parts, but it’s not enough to say it’s completely convincing, for a film that wants to maintain its gravitas throughout, and for a role that may have come too soon for Chalamet.
One moment that will cause some debate is Robert Pattinson’s Dauphin and his French accent. The production could have hired a French-speaking actor for the role instead of Pattinson’s distracting accent. But to defend him (which I will passionately do), the move is intentional and necessary. As a character contrast, he’s the opposite of Chamalet’s Henry V. He’s cocky, over-confident and comically insulting. But it’s at that point where you needed someone so characteristically and ridiculously over the top. You needed that sharp, light-relief injection of empty threats to help to cut through the constant monotone of its seriousness. And the contrast works when the film leads you to one expectation in one crucial scene, only to deflate it the next.
But it is Joel Edgerton who is the heart and soul of the film. To sum up his character, he’s the personification of Mark Addy – serious, faithful, loyal, loveable heart, a good laugh, and if you happen to veer down a stupid path, he is the voice of reason, or in this scenario, call you out on your drunkenness of power. He also happens to look like him, proof that Mark Addy type beard is a good look!
For all of its ominous and operatic performances, it’s the supporting cast that gives The King its watchable credibility. Whether it is Pattinson, Edgerton or Sean Harris, they provide the emotional relief that’s absent. Because without that, it would have been utterly soulless. Michôd skilful direction does enough to rescue it from that pit, but can’t match the payoff it desperately wants.
THE KING is screening as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival 2019. For screening details and ticket availability, please visit their website for more details. Released 1st November 2019 on Netflix.