In today’s world, Shakespeare isn’t an easy sell. Perhaps due to its links with school days, or the running time of the features which take inspiration from the plays, adaptations of arguably the world’s greatest writer are few and far between, with higher quality works coming around at an even less consistent pace. Luckily, then, that The King falls into this category.
Combining both parts of Henry IV and the later Henry V is a smart move by co-writers David Michôd and Joel Edgerton; The King is thoughtfully paced without awkward transitions from one play to the next. It may prove too glacially paced for some — Shakespeare was never known for his action-heavy plays, after all — but it’s a testament to the adaptation of the works that the potential dryness in this the tale of a medieval king never comes to fruition. The final moments may seem tacked on, despite its source material, but by combining the trilogy, Michôd and Edgerton make a dense story more palatable, and a seemingly straightforward story more interesting.
The King will be much compared to Justin Kurzel’s adaptation of Macbeth released in 2015, but apart from the fact that they are both Shakespeare plays filmed beautifully, that’s where the similarities end. Whilst Macbeth played with the surreal — a natural course as the story involves witches and premonitions — The King is rooted firmly in its realistic world. Had this not been based on the plays, it is simply another historical drama vying for our attention.
Timothée Chalamet is good as the titular king, but the part of Hal is arguably the least interesting in this iteration of Shakespeare’s ‘Henriad,’ so he has little to work with, remaining stoic and giving the occasional rousing speech; even Henry’s early hedonistic days are met with a dourness carried throughout the film. Chalamet, arguably one of the best young actors working today, is overshadowed by the supporting cast, particularly Joel Edgerton as Sir John Falstaff, friend and advisor to the king. Understated and naturalistic, Edgerton seems the most comfortable of the cast with the dialogue, understandable given the fact that he is co-writer, and has most likely lived with the play the longest.
The film is also beautiful to look at, mostly thanks to the wonderful cinematography by Adam Arkapaw. Imbued with the gray and blue hues present in many of Michod’s work — England has never looked colder with the sun (occasionally) beaming down on its fields — many beautiful shots are juxtaposed with the death so rife in Shakespeare’s works. A stitched tracking shot during a climactic battle sequence is quite literally muddy and unclear, but one of the most impressive sequences in the entire film, and worth witnessing on the big screen.
There is not much fun to be had with the ‘Henriad,’ so it’s no surprise that The King‘s lighter moments are rare. Edgerton occasionally brings a bit of humour to his role, but the comedic relief from the consistent war planning is unfortunately unintentional. Robert Pattinson is a fantastic actor, and his physical performance is not lacking, but, as The Dauphin, the Brit is burdened with the task of speaking in a French accent. Whilst not the most hideous fake accent ever to be heard, it is an incredibly distracting and odd note in the film.
Even with this slight mishap and a few short scenes that could probably be cut, The King is an adaptation worth watching. Methodically paced, its near three-hour runtime is for the patient and fans of extended conversations, but its subtlety and lack of urgency become the narrative, instead focusing on the mastery of the original art, with the added bonus of some great performances.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on October 3, 2019, as part of our coverage of the BFI London Film Festival.