The King review: A gripping historical drama that knows what it wants to say, and says it well
Based on Shakespeare's Henriad, David Michôd's The King beautifully tackles themes of friendhsip, loyalty and the pointlessness of war
Around the middle of David Michôd's The King, Sir John Falstaff (Joel Edgerton, who also co-wrote the film) says, "A king has no friends." And yet, Hal aka Henry V (a very effective Timothee Chalamet) considers John, with whom he has spent a lot of his wayward youth, his friend. Henry has recently ascended to the throne and sharply feels the loneliness that comes with wearing the English crown. He is surrounded by men who but a short while ago regarded him with disgust. Men who, as his sister Phillipa points out, have "their own kingdoms behind their eyes." Whose counsel can he trust? Friendship and loyalty are two of the themes of The King.
Director: David Michôd
Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Joel Edgerton, Sean Harris, Lily-Rose Depp, Robert Pattinson
Henry wants to avoid bloodshed whenever possible. Even before he becomes king, even when his father has stripped him of his claim to the throne, he risks his life in a one-on-one combat to avoid an unnecessary battle. And when he finally does become the king, Henry wants to untangle the mess of civil strife left behind by his father. He wants peace. But what the young king gets instead is war. War, and its senselessness, is another theme of this film.
The King is based on Shakespeare's Henriad (mainly Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, and Henry V), but isn't a direct adaptation. Michôd and Edgerton have made several deviations from the plot of the plays. Falstaff's character arc, for instance, has been modified significantly. So too has that of Chief Justice William Gascoigne (a memorable Sean Harris, whose screen time is rivalled only by those of Chalamet and Edgerton). Catherine (Lily-Rose Depp), daughter of King Charles of France, only shows up at the very end of this film from which women are almost completely absent, though she does have a significant role to play in the story. The Dauphin is given a decidedly comical turn (Robert Pattinson has a lot of fun hamming it up and avoiding speaking French — "Please speak English. I enjoy to speak English," he claims at one point).
What's more interesting is the way war is treated in this film. The views on war in Shakespeare's Henry V — whether it glorifies or condemns warfare — has been the subject of much debate. The play has been adapted for the big screen multiple times before, with each film interpreting this aspect in its own way — Laurence Olivier's 1944 film glorified warfare as it was meant to bolster morale during World War II, while Kenneth Branagh's celebrated 1989 adaptation decried it. Michôd's The King opens with the shot of a victorious warrior walking through a battlefield filled with the bodies of his slain foe. But there's no celebration here, the mood is decidedly sombre. He finds one survivor groaning and crawling in the wrong direction, and stabs him to death. The look on his face makes clear the stand of this film on war. And if that weren't enough, later in the film, after Hal has killed Henry "Hotspur" Percy in that one-on-one combat mentioned before, Falstaff tells him, "Never have I felt so vile as when standing victorious on a battlefield. The thrill of victory fades quickly. What lingers long after is always ugly."
The film sticks to this thesis throughout. War is never shown as anything but ugly. Even the hand-to-hand combat scenes are not choreographed to look nice. There is an emphasis on the futility and senselessness of warfare, illustrated brilliantly in one particular overhead shot during the Battle of Agincourt where Falstaff is caught with his helmet off in a sea of armoured men fighting each other in complete chaos. The famous St Crispin's Day speech which the king uses in Henry V to whip him men up into a patriotic frenzy too is replaced with a milder version — though, in all fairness, Chalamet's delivery and Nicholas Britell's rousing score do give it the strength that the words themselves lack. The King does not end with the English victory at Agincourt. It goes on to again impress upon us how easily wars can be started and how foolish they are in the grand scheme of things. And isn't that only too true, and a lesson humankind has still not learned all these centuries since?