Audiences are bound to notice similarities between this film and last year’s Outlaw King or Kingdom of Heaven, as well as multiple parallels to the style and structure of Game of Thrones. Unlike the aforementioned, this medieval epic doesn’t hold its sword proudly, rather limping like a wounded soldier seemingly without a purpose.
The year is 1413 and the rule of King Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn) is slowly coming to an end, due to an illness. He decided to give the throne to his younger son Thomas (Dean-Charles Chapman), instead of Hal (Timothée Chalamet) a calm pacifist, who doesn’t care nor want the crown. When Thomas falls in a battle Hal has to step up to be king, which involves two of the most dramatic changes to his character: getting the notorious bowlcut and claiming the name Henry V. Chalamet excels as the films centerpiece, who’s holding it all together. Henry is light on words and most of his complex inner tribulations are expressed through his face and eyes alone, making The King one of his best performances yet. He lives every emotion Hal’s going through, showing his hunger to prove himself as well as his fantastic range.
Once on the throne, he’s pulled into the the weakly drawn out, halfway believable, intrigues of the court wanting him to attack France. Conflicted Henry most often turns to his servant and friend Falstaff (Joel Edgerton), who comes the closest out of all the characters to being the emotional centre of the story. He’s an integral part of the first half, only to be then inexplicably moved sideways in a story that was partly his. Edgerton in the role of the wise and much restrained Falstaff gives a solid performance that’s one of the best things The King has to offer. Joel and Timothée play beautifully against each other, complimenting the restrained performance of the other one. The film, the first half at least, stands on this relationship, even if it’s not always fully convincing.
It seems that The King doesn’t want more than two prominent characters in the story at once, as at the time that Falstaff is pushed out the Dauphin of France (Robert Pattinson) enters the film. He’s never given a backstory and so it remains a mystery why, in a movie with everyone being so serious, Pattison comes through as a cartoonish villain equipped with a dreadful accent. He’s beating to the sound of his own drum, making his extended cameo appearance a much needed comedy relief and a breath of fresh air.
The King takes on a massive story that can’t help but feel rushed. Despite the 140-minute runtime, all possibly intriguing major points are went over in a brief fashion. The first third introduces Hal’s rule as well as the conflict he had with his father, but the film never delves deeper. The questions are laid out and answered in the simplest of ways, losing a potential for a layered story. “Will Henry follow the footsteps of his father despite resenting him? How long will it take for this absolute power to corrupt him? Should he listen to the people around him?” Instead, The King rushes into its seemingly never ending second act, which consists mostly of discussing war and politics in tents. The film sacrifices drama for a sense of (Shakespearean) realism, which feels ironically out of place and needlessly drags out this horribly paced story.
Battle of Agincourt is not only the climax of the second act, but the films as a whole. Henry V and Dauphin fight a thrilling battle, easily one of the best sequences of the film, even if it takes just a little too much of its visual cues from Battle of the Bastards. There is still some 30 minutes left for an epilogue of sorts, which could’ve (and should’ve) never been there in the first place. It shows Henry in his role as an established king, with one memorable scene and an ending underwhelming to most.
In theory, The King has all the significant parts of a historical Shakespearean story except for the gripping drama that made the bard’s work stood the test of time. Timothée and Edgerton shine with their understated performances as the brightest parts of a film, that should have ended 30 minutes sooner, as the viewer will rarely be fully engaged in this slow-moving story. It’s a mess from which only Chalamet emerges victorious, ready for his reign.