What is the point of Shakespeare without Shakespeare? This question is central to David Michôd’s The King, which tells the story of Henry V of England, a story canonized in English literature by Shakespeare’s Henry Cycle of plays. There are other great warrior-kings of England that Shakespeare did not immortalize—Richard the Lionheart, for example—so Henry V is, at this point, inseparable from Shakespeare. Is there any point in trying to sever the two? And if you do elect to tell Henry V’s story without Shakespeare’s language, could it work? Based on The King, the answer to both those questions is “no”. You can’t take the Shakespeare out of Henry V’s story—and screenwriters Michôd and Joel Edgerton don’t even try, retaining character names like “Falstaff” instead of converting to the historically accurate Sir John Oldcastle—and all you get by ditching Shakespeare’s language is a sloggy, dull story.
The King begins with Prince Hal (Timothee Chalamet) slumming it with his pal Falstaff (Edgerton) in Eastcheap. The King subscribes to the Monty Python theory of monarchy, in which you can tell Hal is important because he hasn’t got sh-t all over him. Indeed, Michôd seems enamored of Chalamet’s pale complexion, often setting him like a cameo amid dim interiors and dark backdrops, illuminating his visage in light that finds no one else. I would not call The King a particularly beautiful film, being shot in mostly natural light (by Adam Arkapaw) which results in much of the visuals being muddy and gray. But Michôd gives Chalamet his best angles and the best of whatever watery light is available.
One thing The King does well is portray Hal as a man scarred by battle. He resents his father, Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn) for keeping England in a perpetual state of war, and he is desperate to spare his younger brother from the horrors of war. This being an era of constant martial conflict, Hal’s preference for peace is seen as weak, and his father attempts to disinherit him. There is a thread in The King that wants to boil the story down to fathers and sons, and how Hal and his French counterpart, the Dauphin (Robert Pattinson), are driven by their relationships with their fathers, but we don’t actually see enough of these men interacting with their fathers for that to fully scan. It feels more like tacking a moral onto the story in order to justify the experiment than a theme that emerges organically.
The element of The King that works best and most consistently are the performances. Chalamet is great as Hal/Henry, though the film is so f-cking dour it gives him little room to play on the different mindsets of the man when he is a prince versus when he becomes king. Henry V’s story does not have to be so gloomy; Shakespeare proves that. The Hollow Crown adapted the Henry Cycle with Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal/Henry V, and it is not grim or dour at all, and there is an appreciable shift in Henry when he has leadership thrust on him. The King doesn’t give Chalamet as much room to maneuver, so his performance is a little one note, though it is one note played extremely well. As for Pattinson, he is expectedly kooky as the Dauphin, but he’s not on screen enough to make a difference in the tone. He just provides an interesting grace note to the glum proceedings.
Perhaps worst of all is that the battle scenes can’t save The King, either. Here we realize the true legacy of Game of Thrones—it has forever raised the bar on battle scenes. The King depicts the Battle of Agincourt, which was an inspiration for the Battle of the Bastards, but The King does not execute the premise—trap them in a mud pit, then flank them—nearly as well. Trying to capture the chaos of a melee fight does not mean the scene has to be confusing or poorly choreographed. The Battle of the Bastards captures that chaos beautifully, but you’re never at a loss for what you’re looking at or where you are on the battlefield. In The King, though, it is impossible to tell what’s happening for the first half of the battle scene. Eventually, once Henry enters the fight, it gets easier to follow because the action centers on Henry and doesn’t leave him as he progresses through the battle. Paradoxically, this clarity of perspective makes the chaos more effective because we better appreciate how hard it is for one person to survive in that circumstance.
Who is The King for? It’s not for Shakespeare fans, but it plays as fast and loose with history as Shakespeare, so it’s not for medieval history buffs, either. I guess it’s for Chalamaniacs, or whatever his fans are called, because there’s really no reason to watch The King unless it’s to stare at Chalamet for two hours-plus. (Lainey: hi! I’m here!) It could be a useful case study for fully appreciating the technical accomplishment of Miguel Sapochnik’s direction on Game of Thrones, but you could just fast forward to the Battle of Agincourt for that. Otherwise, adapting Shakespeare without Shakespeare’s language is a bit like doing a shot-for-shot remake of Pscyho. You CAN do it, but why should you?