Shakespeare’s Henry V enticed both Laurence Olivier in 1944 and Kenneth Branagh in 1989 to take on the role of the warrior king who led the English to an unlikely victory over the French in the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, a crucial turning point in the Hundred Years’ War. Both adaptations were auspicious directorial debuts for the British actors. Australian filmmakers David Michôd and Joel Edgerton have taken a far looser approach in their screenplay for The King, incorporating storylines from Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2, taking liberties with the fates of a character or two, and generally ironing out the plays’ Elizabethan flair.
Michôd directs and Edgerton plays Falstaff, the carousing buddy of Prince Hal, played by Timothée Chalamet as a rebellious boy at odds with his warmongering father (Ben Mendelsohn) until the day the crown is thrust upon his own head. Writing for Screen, Jonathan Romney finds that “Michôd’s film is a determinedly solemn and violent affair, which makes a sober political point at the end—but not before it has treated us to two hours of bleakly realistic historical reconstruction and some lugubrious drama. The King is dreary miles away from the imaginative sharpness of Michôd’s career-making Animal Kingdom, or even his overwrought but vivid Australian futurescape The Rover.”
For IndieWire’s David Ehrlich, The King is “so eager to be a mud-and-guts epic about inherited violence and the corruption of power that it loses sight of the rich coming-of-age story at its core.” That said, one bright spot for Ehrlich is the brief appearance of Robert Pattinson “as a hilariously sociopathic dauphin who looks like Klaus Kinski and talks like a castrated Pepé Le Pew.” Christina Newland, writing for the Playlist, agrees that Pattinson’s “characterization is borderline ridiculous, but also a pretty fantastic source of comic relief.”
But not even Pattinson can steal the film from Chalamet. Variety’s Owen Gleiberman argues that “when you take an actor who looks like this and cast him as a young king, it’s not just about how fascinating the role is—the film is capturing the elevation of his stardom. And Timothée Chalamet, I predict, could be the biggest movie star of his generation. As he demonstrates in The King, he’s got it—not just the talent (though he’s a superb actor), but the ability to fix an audience with his stare, so that even when he’s doing nothing much at all, what he’s looking at or thinking about becomes the story the movie is telling.”
For Time’s Stephanie Zacharek, “as winsomely solemn as Chalamet is, it’s Edgerton’s Falstaff who won my heart. There will never be a greater movie Falstaff than Orson Welles, the star and brightly burning center of his own 1965 Chimes at Midnight. But Edgerton puts a mindful spin on the character. The scowl he wears behind his scruffy beard can have any one of multiple meanings, and sometimes a few mixed together.” Edgerton “looks at home amid a rogues’ gallery of grunters and brawlers,” writes the Guardian’s Xan Brooks. “Chalamet never does. This is partly the point—Henry is intended to be seen as a black sheep, by turns callow and sullen and enlightened and smart—but Chalamet’s air of poetic self-regard seems to have been imported from a more recent century (this century, for instance).”
The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney finds “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 fifteenth 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.” At CineVue, John Bleasdale notes that Nicholas Britell’s score is “an omnipresent drone that occasionally Zimmers its way to grandeur.”
The Battle of Agincourt is “staged with the appropriate clang and squish, a meaty tangle of metal and men that gets the heart rate up and the stomach plunging with dread,” writes Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson. Ultimately, though, for Lawson, The King is “a pretty straight-down-the-middle period war-king film, a true Boy Movie of respectable pedigree but no real distinction.” Chalamet doesn’t get to deliver Shakespeare’s immortal pre-battle pep talk—“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”—and Time Out’s Phil de Semlyen finds Michôd and Edgerton’s version “a bit flat.” Overall, though, he’s pleased that the screenwriters aren’t “satisfied with just hitting triumphalist beats. Olivier’s Henry V was famously used as World War II propaganda. This version of the story is stirring, but it unpicks the idea of English exceptionalism with real smarts, too.”
The King has premiered out of competition in Venice and heads to the London Film Festival and a limited release in the States next month before Netflix begins streaming it on November 1.
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