We’re in the 15th century. The reign of Henry IV (Ben Mendehlson) is reaching its final stages. He is sick, paranoid, and he wants to see his estranged first born son Hal (Timothée Chalamet), who lives with his friend John Falstaff (Joel Edgerton) in the muddy area of Eastcheap, far from the Royal Palace. Hal has made it clear that he doesn’t want to inherit the throne of England, and his father is finally ready to accept that, as he has decided to leave it to his second-born son Thomas. When young Thomas dies in one of the battles of the bloody, grueling Hundred Years war, it’s time for Hal to step up and wear the crown, and finally confront the King and Dauphin of France (Robert Pattinson) who are proving to be an increasingly dangerous threat.
Loosely inspired by William Shakespeare’s Henry V, The King, third feature film helmed by Australian director David Michôd, is a film about power. It is about the thirst for it, the appeal of it, the reject of it, the poison of it. How do we make decisions when we know that hundreds, thousands of people might die because of them? Do we turn a blind eye to that and just move on? What kind of stain does that leave? Hal, the future Henry V, has never wanted to be a king. Life at court disgusts him, and he’s not interested in the war that devastated England and France in the Middle Ages. But what happens to him when he’s finally on the throne? He simply has to adapt, learn to change his views, accept that his role and his crown demand of him unpleasant decisions. Timothée Chalamet, the young actor who charmed and moved audiences all around the world as Elio in Call Me By Your Name, plays Henry V with magnetic charisma, going from the disillusioned young man in the first half of the film to the lost, insecure young king of the middle section, to the vengeful, bloody monarch in the third half. His impenetrable look constantly hides a bottled lighting, a storm ready to be unleashed. Despite the extremely slow pace of the first half due to a script that feels occasionally overwrought, it’s Chalamet that anchors the movie, giving it an emotional weight that wouldn’t exist otherwise.
The film reaches its full spectacle potential when the Daulphin of France (played with deliciously campy gusto by a brilliant Robert Pattinson) decides to enter the scene by threatening the King of England and his army. Battle strategies abound, heated arguments take place, and the tension rises. It is the moment where John Falstaff becomes a key character, with Joel Edgerton channeling his inner Russell Crowe to make his character fully alive. The battle scenes are nothing short of spectacular. The camera moves into the chaos of blood and mud of the plains around Azincourt, helped by Adam Arkapaw’s muscular and immersive cinematography and Nicholas Brittell’s atmospheric, if sometimes overbearing music.
The King is a film that, despite a conventional premise, avoids the traps of the period genre. Magnetic and alluring, it’s a satisfying journey back to the middle ages, when personal disputes were resolved on the battlefield.
This review is from the Venice Film Festival. Netflix will release The King in select theaters on October 11 and then debut on the streamer November 1.