David Michôd‘s Henriad drama, The King, comprises three works of the bard, taking Shakespeare’s Henry IV (parts 1 and 2) and Henry V and forming them into a composite piece of historical drama. The drunkard, layabout son of King Henry IV, Hal finds himself under the pressure of ascending the throne, progressing from being his father’s last resort to the only available choice. Young, unproven and on the downward path towards a bloody venture, Hal surrounds himself with advisors who, in typical Shakespearean fashion, are of Machiavellian intention.
Political drama is at the forefront of Joel Edgerton‘s and Michôd’s interpretation of the trio of texts, in keeping with Shakespeare’s writings, but they seek to reinforce an authenticity in their characters. Complimentary to the audience, perhaps to a fault, the script is subtle. With the gift of a ball to the juvenile king and other matters which go unspoken, it’s refreshing to see exposition or symbolism left for audiences to unearth; at the same time, this does fail to encourage a heightened response in key moments.
It would seem the people’s newest champion of cinema, Timothée Chalamet, continues his rise in a breakthrough career in his interpretation of Hal. A round-shouldered, inverting individual who grows to stand tall, he becomes a beacon for the people of England following countless wars and battles. More so than other performers, Chalamet treats The King as a reflection of the three plays, showcasing a richer characterisation and physical evolution than his co-stars.
A buffoonish pursuer of vice, Falstaff is perhaps Shakespeare’s most significant creation outside of a titular role, a character who transcends a variety of mediums. Edgerton’s judgement of the performance rivals Chalamet’s dedication to the film, which is understandable given his primary writing role. An enabler, the character dips into the mystical advisor of cinematic tropes, but it allows Edgerton to captivate, holding our attention with ease. That’s especially true since his balance of humour never exceeds mild sarcasm nor jolly defiance to Hal, or in scenes where a playful rivalry blooms with Robert Pattinson’s Dauphin.
Taking a Shakespearean interpretation, the Dauphin would be well at home in the Globe Theatre. Pattinson’s exaggerated mannerisms are menacing, but in doing so he stretches into an over-reaching antagonist. A peculiar choice in direction, Michôd here creates a divide in the film’s tone, pushing more nuanced performances against that of excess. It makes for an entertaining opponent, but one suspects there are always a few seconds cut before a cackle or curling of the fingers would infect Pattinson’s performance.
While the comfort of the living room appeals to streaming releases, a cinematic scale of the action demonstrates Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography. Going beyond the battles or open-air scenes, there’s a profound intimacy in the dimensions of The King. Arkapaw captures the claustrophobic pressure of the courts, the bedrooms and inner sanctums. It’s not only a visual but an aural sensation which captivates the atmosphere of the film. Nicholas Britell’s score accentuates the sublime imagery, never pervading a scene or interrupting tension, seeking solely to act alongside the visual design of a scene, whether this grows in grandeur or slithers back into silence to allow impact.
The King is an engrossing update which lifts Shakespeare’s characters into a piece of classical cinematic filmmaking. It does sometimes falter, though, in failing to fit together the sum of its parts into a tight, comprehensive package. The pieces lie there, each a component of something which would generate buzz, but there are gaps where parts fail to align. Its blade has little sharpness, and although it’s a well-crafted piece of film, there’s no edge to Michôd’s The King outside of its visuals and solid performances. Those are selling features in their own right, but not enough to quite carry it to the lofty expectations it seeks.