As the screen went black, my neck cracked in a few places, and a light timorous applause arose, all I could immediately recall was Robert Pattinson’s awful French accent.
In 2013, Warner Bros. announced that director David Michôd (Animal Kingdom, multiple awards, critically acclaimed) and actor/filmmaker Joel Edgerton (Zero Dark Thirty and a host of others) were working on a script for a gritty medieval drama loosely based off Shakespeare’s Henry V. The trailer promised love and war, internal conflicts, and fight scenes choreographed to perfection. Casting was periodically announced throughout the beginning of 2018, and with such names as Timothée Chalamet, Lily-Rose Depp, Sean Harris, and Robert Pattinson, The King appeared to be set in the performance department. All that Michôd had to do was pull all the pieces together, deliver a riveting script, keep the mood consistent and simply interpret this age-old Boy Becomes a King adage into something new.
The film opens with an establishing shot of the rolling English countryside, pastoral and well-lit, where all seems calm. Times New Roman letters tell us this is the fifteenth century, and a pan to bodies strewn across a field immediately sets the mood — this story will be gruesome and dark power struggle. After the introduction of some corpses, we meet Hal (Timothée Chalamet), a boy of absolutely no significance, seen only refusing to get out of bed, getting drunk, and sleeping with peasant girls. His rack thin frame and sunken stare had me wondering how he could possibly hold up under the title “Henry V.”
It is then revealed that the current King is deathly ill, and predictably Hal must rise to the occasion, complete with a confusing bowl-cut and montage of royal rituals. The conflict now comes to the question of France: to invade, or not to invade. In a quick decision that leaves no room for building tension or internal conflict for the newly crowned Hal, we follow Chalamet on a crusade to Northern France. Even in its lack of pace or tension, The King succeeds in its fight scenes. If you yearn for the clashing of swords and chainmail and huffing bodies, the few fights do their job, and really end up being the only scenes that ground the movie to its setting. The dialogue still lacks authenticity, a strange mixture of silly diction and modern intonation, as if the writers couldn’t decide if they wanted to adopt a Shakespearean style or not. Chalamet delivers on acting, but the destruction of his morality inherent in his eyes means nothing if the dialogue is so clunky as to be somehow anachronistic in a period-piece.The cinematography makes up for this, and with constant shallow focus, we are told to ignore the ornate background of medieval England, and instead focus on the characters, their eyes and their interactions.
During King Henry V’s campaign we meet the Dauphin of France (Robert Pattinson). Complete with a shaggy blonde wig and vampire-esque sallowness, Pattinson mocks Chalamet with something along the lines of “I will bury your body under a tiny French tree, just like your tiny cock.’ Because the insult was such a sharp break from the seriousness of war and death I had to actually laugh. Hal/Henry V asks for compromise, for Pattinson to fight him one on one in hopes of preventing the massacre of either of their forces. Hal has the best intentions, he mirrors the intentions of the film itself, and so similarly they don’t measure up. Hal ends up going to battle, having the French Dauphin killed, and ultimately claims France as his own. In a brief conversation with Catherine of Valois (Lily-Rose Depp) — Hal’s soon to be trophy wife — we are told of the purpose of this entire film. Catherine of Valois tells Henry V that he was swept away by the power, blinded by war, and ultimately lost who he was. Now that is all good and dramatic, but the two hours that lead up to this moment simply don’t express this notion (at least not very well).
There was potential for Michôd to comment on a whole range of things, from tyranny to personal growth and how a young man can break under the enormous pressure of an empire. There’s palace politics, decapitation, confrontations, prolonged eye-contact, random slow-motion scenes and misplaced dissolves. So yes, there was potential, but instead of feeling like something was accomplished, or that something new had emerged within the nuances of facial expression, I cringed at the lack of subtlety in Lily-Rose Depp’s delivery. In the end, The King has the right actors, the right mood and editing, but the dialogue fell short, and the careful construction of tension was nowhere to be seen.