Destiny is a treacherous master in David Michôd’s THE KING, which charts the evolution of Henry V from willful prince to conflicted leader. The same was true in William Shakespeare’s HENRIAD plays before it, with the Australian director loosely adapting the famous scribe’s historical works with co-writer — and jolly on-screen Falstaff — Joel Edgerton. Reuniting after ANIMAL KINGDOM, the two Aussie talents simplify the Bard’s language but lean on his multi-layered themes, while also drawing heavily on a recurrent point of interest for Michôd across the bulk of his four-feature career. Hal, as King Henry V is known in his impish youth, was always on a murky path to England’s regal seat. Still, as the man behind THE KING keeps wondering, how much of his future was his own?
Played with the requisite rebellious streak by Timothée Chalamet, Hal doesn’t want to ascend to the throne. His spluttering, spiteful father, Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn), doesn’t want him to either. Instead, younger sibling Thomas (Dean-Charles Chapman) has been anointed the monarch’s successor — a solution that suits Hal and his partying ways perfectly. But with England in a constant state of unrest thanks to both external and internal threats, Hal’s peace-seeking pragmatism thrusts him towards the crown after his dad’s demise. He’s the type of leader who’d rather fight one-on-one than risk his men’s lives, and who doesn’t see the need to takeover France just because he can. Alas, the weight of actually becoming king, and the whispers in his ear that come with it, soon begin to dictate otherwise.
In THE KING’S protracted early sections, Hal does what he pleases while being slowly pushed in the obvious direction. His fate is right there in the film’s title, but in plotting the machinations surrounding him — and the duplicitous realm that is the kingdom’s political landscape — he’s plunged into instantly recognisable territory. Hal is hardly as innocent or uninitiated as ANIMAL KINGDOM’S Joshua Cody (James Frecheville), but he inherits a world that’s just as thorny. While the stakes are undeniably higher among royalty, to watch Hal’s advisors nudge him this way and that to service their own needs (and to attempt to sway his policies and decisions) is to wade into the same terrain as Michôd’s Melbourne-set crime drama. Upon its 2010 release, ANIMAL KINGDOM was dubbed Shakespearean, after all, with its bickering, scheming, double-crossing gangland family scrambling for their own place atop their own empire.
Like the youngest Cody, Hal is also torn in opposing directions, including by those who deign to offer him advice. Falstaff counsels in practicalities, especially when The Dauphin (Robert Pattinson) starts throwing his accent around in the name of his own country; however William Gascoigne (Sean Harris) agitates for bloody confrontation, championing a war on the French he contends that the English people demand. Hal is wily in conversation, strategy and combat, yet even as he keeps displaying his strengths, he’s hardly allowed to do his own bidding. THE KING takes its time to lay bare the full spread of forces needling at the reluctant sovereign, but when it does, it paints a grim picture of his regal reality.
“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”, Shakespeare’s HENRY IV, PART 2 told theatre-goers more than four centuries ago, a sentiment Hal comes to know as he faces the minutiae of his kingly responsibilities. With France on the attack — and a clash in Agincourt a foregone historical conclusion — the young ruler now wades through a teeming hellscape. It’s green and muddy, filled with fields and trees, and overflowing with loyal soldiers, but it’s as much as a wasteland as THE ROVER’S post-apocalyptic vision of the Australian outback. Societal storms blight the English and French battlefields, leaving Hal to redress the past misdeeds of others to secure a future that’s not of his making.
Michôd excels in the thick of combat, depicting the relentless hustle and bustle in action scenes not that far removed from GAME OF THRONES’ big clashes (but more visible and better lit, thankfully). Although cinematographer Adam Arkapaw finds visual comfort in shades of grey as Hal’s conversations rage, he relishes the visible complexity of pulsating bodies as well — including when viewing Falstaff’s winding path through the masses from above. Here, THE KING feels like an act of culmination. That’s true for Hal, and also for Michôd. Following a trail that’s led to this heaving juncture, nothing dismantles delusions of grandeur, be it of a crime dynasty, scrounging scoundrels or English exceptionalism, like watching a wealth of sound and fury that costs plenty but ultimately signifies little.
If Michôd was somewhat destined to tell this tale — building upon past work, and taking the next step after WAR MACHINE’S satirical unpacking of mass conflict, too — he clearly appreciates the weight of his task. It may seem to have been cast by the internet, and it can be guilty of supreme patience, but THE KING amasses the right ingredients to fuel a simmering stew of political, social and royal disharmony. Chalamet’s solemnity and Pattinson’s near-comedy make for unlikely yet fitting bedfellows, capturing both the bleak and the farcical nature of humanity’s bloody disputes in the name of king, country and those who’ve come before. It takes an influential late appearance by Lily-Rose Depp as Catherine, the Dauphin’s sister, to hammer home THE KING’S power but, when it hits, there’s no doubting that Michôd has been building towards the movie’s rippling climax in more ways than one.
Sarah Ward is the Australia-based film critic for Screen International, film editor for Concrete Playground, a reviewer and writer for Flicks.com.au, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, ABC Radio, ScreenHub, ArtsHub and Birth.Movies.Death.
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