Courtesy of Netflix
Dramatizing historical and iconic figures - be it fictional or not - who were etched into our minds by the likes of William Shakespeare is nothing new. Just ask Orson Wells, Laurence Olivier, and Kenneth Branagh. In Netflix’s revisionist interpretation from “Animal Kingdom” helmer David Michod called “The King” - some bold choices and liberties are taken with the material. Aided by fellow screenwriter Joel Edgerton (who also stars in the film) - “The King” attempts to offer an intriguing new vision at one of England’s most notable monarchs, even if the film lacks a gripping hook to latch onto.
At the top of the film, we are informed it is the beginning of the 15th century and the ailing Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn) days are numbered. His son, Prince Hal (Timothée Chalemet) is out lollygagging around in the streets and has no interest in ascending the throne (if he could have his way, he would probably get rid of his heritage altogether). Such is the reason, his father plans to pass him over in favor of his brother Thomas (Dean-Charles Chapman). But, as always is the case during this period of history, war is hell, battle is inevitable, rulers die, and it's not long before Hal begrudgingly takes his right of passage to become King Henry V.
All he wants is peace, yet the French seem to have other plans in store and send over an assassin in the night, and frivolous gifts (like a children’s ball) to provoke a reaction, particularly the Dauphin (a gleefully animated Robert Pattinson). Thus begins the march towards domination, with war gear packed on ships, traitors are publicly beheaded, and Edgerton’s lazy beer guzzling Sir John Falstaff is promoted to trusted advisor.
Netflix has spared no expense, the glistening camera sweeps over the gorgeous countryside and breathtaking cinematography by Adam Arkapaw confirm that, but it still comes up kind of lopsided. The script seems to hold water, despite a few cracks that manage to seep through, most notably the pacing and anticlimactic battle that looks like a deleted scene from a better episode of “Game of Thrones.” The film wants us to believe that Falstaff should be the films moral compass, informing the king of a wild battle strategy that proves so accurate it practically ruins the finale before it even begins, and that’s a refreshing angle for Edgerton to take his character. Meanwhile Pattinson seems to be soaking up the spotlight as a ridiculously accented French who plays it as if the character belongs on Saturday Night Live.
Yet the entire weight of the film falls on Chalamet’s very capable shoulders, whose vamping is pure delight. Like most of his work, Chalamet rules over many of his scenes, and watching him struggle with the bitter irony that you need to have bloodshed in order to stop it is engrossing. The film is impressive with its epic scale and scope, and the savagery depicted in the mud banks of the war are decently crafted, but it ultimately comes down to the size of everything in between. Take out the Skakespearen language, and this is really just another story about a king and a battle. In fact, “The King” doesn’t have the wow factor of something akin to “Gladiator” or even “The Revenant.” You watch desperately waiting for something to elevate the straightforward, though inventive, narrative, and try as this exceptional cast does, “The King” leaves much to be desired.