The Australian director of crime drama Animal Kingdom and sparse apocalyptic thriller The Rover might not be the first name that would come to mind when thinking of Shakespearean filmmakers, but David Michod clearly hasn’t felt the pressure of tradition. The King, his and Joel Edgerton’s take on Shakespeare’s Henry plays, ditches the verse and the lightness of spirit in favour of a brutally realistic look at Medieval monarchy and warfare. It’s a choice that makes for a weighty and often impressive film, but not a hugely entertaining one. A grim, and overlong, trudge toward death and destiny, The King makes you work hard to reach its highlights.
Clearly favouring Henry V, The King pushes through the blighted reign of Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn) relatively quickly before hard-partying Prince Hal (Timothee Chalamet) inherits the crown. The main ingredients are all present and accounted for – there’s a drink-loving Falstaff (Joel Edgerton), a rebellious Hotspur (Tom Glynn-Carney), and a rousing speech before Agincourt – but everything is played with such deathly seriousness that the sombre monotone becomes tiresome. When battle finally arrives, it’s a well-needed shot in the arm for the film and, like Netflix stablemate Outlaw King, these brutish and bruising sequences make all the lumpen preamble worthwhile.
Chivalry and honour is a long way from these brawls, which are staunchly realistic. Exhausting long takes show the full weight of combat in full plate armour, combatants out of breath in half a minute and most fights descending into a series of rugby tackles and opportunistic stabs to the face. Hal’s duel with Hotspur is excitingly intense, and that’s only a minor taste of what’s to come at Agincourt. A suffocating crush, it’s reminiscent of Game of Thrones’s masterpiece Battle of the Bastards, incredible long takes tracking Henry as he crunches his way through the French forces.
It’s a performance quite unlike any Chalamet has given before, imbued with darkness and responsibility, and he sets the tone for the whole cast. No one gives a bad performance – and Sean Harris in particular is great in support – but the lack of variety in their grimacing countenances can be boring. Only Robert Pattinson seems to have missed the memo, and he brings a delightful and much-needed burst of campy energy as the Dauphin of France. Absolutely respecting the character’s more comic role in the plays, he hams it up a treat with a knowingly silly French accent and jaunty mannerisms.
He appears too infrequently, but he’s very welcome every time he pops up, bursting the pompous bubbles of the Englishmen. Though not as strikingly gorgeous as Justin Kurzel’s similarly sweeping imagining of Macbeth, The King is very well shot, the close-ups of Hal particularly beautiful. Adam Arkapaw’s camera is never more painterly than when Chalamet holds its exclusive attention, elevating him to regal status in a series of stunning shots. The score is even better, Nicholas Britell driving the action with his music, which pulses with grandness and majesty.
With so many excellent individual elements, it’s deeply frustrating that the overall film so often bogs itself down in ponderous slowness. Michod and Edgerton clearly have a very strong vision for bringing Henry to the big screen, but it’s a vision of such leaden earnestness that it needed some puncturing, especially when in the few unfortunate occasions where the script dips from serious to ‘edgy’. As a war film, it’s pummelling in the best way, but if you’re going to subtract a lot of Shakespeare’s wit from his stories, you better have a damn good reason. For all its beauty and swagger, The King doesn’t.