The rising Hollywood star is miscast as King Henry V in shallow historical drama based on Shakespeare's Henriad plays
This year’s great big Netflix costume epic The King is well-intentioned, very serious and sadly miscalculated.
An adaptation of Henry IV, Part 2 and Henry V that contemporizes the language and boils away the gravitas of Shakespeare’s complex investigation of nobility and destiny, it’ll look pretty good on a big screen at the Lightbox, where it’s opening in advance of its arrival on the streaming service next month… but that’s about it, really. The film’s not unwatchable, but neither does it ever stir the soul.
The King refocuses Shakespeare’s dramas on the relationship between future king Hal (Timothée Chalamet) and his blustering drinking buddy Sir John Falstaff – played by Joel Edgerton, who wrote the script with director David Michôd.
Scholars will note Falstaff barely factors into Henry V, but what ho: in this telling, Hal doesn’t spurn him once he’s crowned king of England, but instead invites Falstaff into his court as a valued advisor. This gives the character a more profound arc than the story’s ostensible hero, whose emotional maturation occurs mostly between scenes.
I found myself wondering more than once whether Edgerton had originally conceived this project as playing out from Falstaff’s point of view, in a Rosencrantz-and-Guildenstern sort of way. (It might have worked certainly Orson Welles’s Chimes At Midnight proved it’s possible to put the character at the centre of a story.)
Chalamet is miscast – he’s an unconvincing wastrel, and lacks the presence to play a convincing monarch – and while Edgerton has a good grasp of Falstaff, the mechanics of the story keep him on the sidelines for much of the first two acts. And even when they’re finally together and invading France, events just sort of happen around them.
Michôd, whose Animal Kingdom and The Rover were at their best when they zoomed in on small, interpersonal conflicts, tries to keep everything similarly intimate (you know, like a play) but the scale of the story keeps expanding, alternating between massive battles and flat scenes at court, the supporting actors struggling to make themselves stand out in gray exteriors or dank castle interiors.
Well, there’s one notable exception. Robert Pattinson turns up as the Dauphin of France late in the action, electrifying the material by refusing to take any of it seriously. I’d love to have seen his take on Hal if nothing else, he’d have been a really fun drunk.