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In spite of its impressive casting and promising Shakespearean roots, Netflix’s new retelling of young Prince Hal’s rise to the throne in “The King” is nothing short of humorless and grim. The story of the dilatory prince (Timothée Chalamet) has none of the joviality found in the Bard’s famously inaccurate, but much lauded depiction of history in the Henriad. Director David Michod’s film is all darkness to its core. This grimness is at times effective, but overwhelmingly bleak to the point that it does not leave room for other traits to shine and distract from the real issue: a major of lack in-depth character development. In spite of the vast number of central characters, Henry (who drops his nickname after he ascends the throne) is the only character that actually changes over the course of the film — which does not say all that much considering how little he does develop.
In this movie, Hal’s wild tramps through Eastcheap are never painted in a joyous light. While Shakespeare’s text his excursions are the way he gets to know the common people and thus become this beloved King of England (or so the Bard portrays), they hardly serve the same purpose in Michod’s vision. Rather, Hal’s London life is shown to be a constant desire for numbing and forgetting his roots. In one of the most disturbing shots of the film, the noise from the tavern is dialed down to a single screech while the future leader gets blind drunk and laughs hysterically at the goings on around him. There is nothing funny about this moment. Hal is never presented as a man who likes to have fun: Rather, he is a man who has purposely lost himself in a world diametrically opposite to the one he grew up in due to fierce disapproval of the court’s Machiavellian nature. He spends his evening in this manner due to extreme guilt he feels about his mad father’s decisions, which have cost innocent lives and close allies.
Hal stumbles onto the throne out of necessity, somewhat convinced by his best friend and former war hero John Falstaff (Joel Edgerton). Yet Hal’s ascent to the throne in this film is as unconvincing as Chalamet’s English accent. He has no real drive, merely a reluctant duty that stems from frustration with the world around him. Hal knows that he cannot recover England to its former glory, which is why he is so reluctant to attack France or to make any political moves. Nonetheless, he gets lost in the politics around him in spite of his understanding of the uselessness of war. The film’s tragedy is watching him walk into the hands of others.
As much as it is a historical film, “The King” is also a psychological dive into the mind of a man riddled with doubts and self-hatred. In spite of his troubling accent, Chalamet captures this self-loathing and confusion incredibly well. His careful acting, however, does not stop the role itself from being rather alienating considering how much brooding his character does. Henry has no other emotions. Unfortunately, Chalamet is clearly uncomfortable with the English accent since he only ever whispers or yells his lines. In the end, this might be more reflective of the unconvincing dialogue. This is most evident with Henry’s supposedly stirring, but rather silly nationalist speech to his troops at Agincourt. There is absolutely no comparison between this and Shakespeare’s rousing and iconic St. Crispin’s Day speech. Not that the film is meant to be based on Shakespeare’s work, but are we really supposed to believe that Chalamet repeatedly screaming “Make it England” about the battleground will spur these men to victory?
Though he plays a rather minimal role, Robert Pattinson is oddly delightful as the Dauphin. His accent is so unnecessarily thick and abrasive, that it is absolutely ridiculous — and yet somehow it works? When paired with his vicious cadences, the hefty French verbiage might not convince (especially in comparison to real French actor Thibault de Montalembert’s speech), but certainly entertains. It also cannot take away from how well Pattinson plays a foolish, mad man. Hal’s first confrontation with the Dauphin is equally terrifying and hilarious, and all credit goes to Pattinson for playing this savage beast so perfectly.
Sadly, as hard as he tries, Joel Edgerton cannot bring the same spirit to Falstaff, a character so popular Shakespeare had to write a spin-off play about him. Edgerton plays Falstaff with just the right amount of spirit, but the issue is that in this version Falstaff does not have much of a character. For this reason, it is difficult to feel any sympathy towards him when he loses his best friend. Even his death does not feel all that poignant. Like many of the most important characters of the film, such as the secret plotter William Gascoigne (Sean Harris), he is forgettable.
What the film lacks in character development, however, it makes up for in gorgeous cinematography, an exquisite set, and lavish costume design. The choreography involved in the battle scene at Agincourt in particular is simply stunning and so effectively filmed, bringing to life the claustrophobia of combat. The senselessness and violence is heartbreakingly portrayed with close up, silent shots. Without any sound, the battle is rendered absurd. And at the end of the day, in a story about the danger of war, this emphasis on absurdity is what really matters.
While it might have some redeeming qualities, the film cannot recover from its glaring issues. Its technical assets put their best foot forward, but cannot save a film that ultimately merited a good rewrite and different less nihilistic vision. Re-working a story as beloved and as historical as that of “Henry V” requires a lot more than just great cinematography.
—Staff writer Aline G. Damas can be reached at email@example.com.
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