BFI LFF 2019: The King (2019)

The King by David Michôd takes a revisionist look at the history we know from Shakespeare, with a star performance by Timothée Chalamet as Henry V.

After Henry

by Alexa Dalby

The King

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

The King starts with an act of striking brutality on a battlefield littered with corpses. It sets the scene for how we are going to continue in a violent period in Britain’s history in the early 15th century, which we know from Shakespeare’s trilogy of plays – but Shakespeare this is not, though Timothée Chalamet as dissolute Prince Hal is still carousing in the taverns of Cheapside with John Falstaff, his rebellion being triggered seemingly by his hostile feelings toward his dying father King Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn).

As in the Shakespeare plays, when Henry IV dies, Hal succeeds him as king. His transformation from playboy to monarch is instant: but the film doesn’t show enough to explain his character arc and sudden wisdom he gains. The court at first remains apprehensive at having him as their new ruler and whether he is capable of acting as a monarch, but they are soon surprised by his mature mien.

Chalamet has a sensitive, intelligent face and his delivery is thoughtful and intense. His performance is gripping. As an actor, he has an amazing ability to show the internal workings of his mind, how we find our way into Henry’s character change from prince to king as he quickly absorbs information and learns statecraft. Slim and boyish still, he looks almost too frail for the hand-to-hand single combats or for hacking his way through the mêlée in the Agincourt battle scene that’s a muddy bloodbath of a victory against the French, where Robert Pattinson makes a bizarre appearance as the Dauphin, speaking English with a memorably ridiculous French accent.

Central to the film is Hal’s, then Henry’s, relationship with Falstaff (Joel Edgerton, who also co-wrote the screenplay with director David Michôd). Here, this Falstaff is a younger man than in Shakespeare, an old soldier who has seen war and does not want to see it again, discouraging the vainglory of those who seek it. Killing leaves an indelible stain on the soul, he warns Hal. And also unlike the Shakespeare, Henry does not cut Falstaff out of his life once he becomes king, he retains him as an advisor who will tell him the truth when he knows he is surrounded by people he can’t trust.

Henry is painted in modern terms as a king, not a pacifist but one who prefers conciliation to war, and would rather avoid conflict and its consequent death toll, if it were possible. Yet as king he cannot help but become a brutal leader; however, he does try to understand and seek truth. He also rather anachronistically takes the advice of women – his sister (Thomasin McKenzie), now the Queen of Denmark, and his wife-to-be (Lily-Rose Depp), who is a marriage bargain put together by her father, the King of France (Thibault de Montalembert). By the end, Henry is described as a “great king”.

In many ways the film looks beautiful. Scenes are lit by natural light during the day or the chiaroscuro of candlelight by night. The costumes are unobtrusively medieval-ish though the background music is not, it is overemphatic and over-used, not trusting the dialogue. The language used is a mixture that veers from clunkingly contemporary to a kind of pastiche medieval. There’s nothing of Shakespeare in it, but strangely it seems to work. The Agincourt battle scene is stunningly choreographed, a horribly compressed crowd of tin men like sardines battering each other. At times the film is a bit like a Horrible Histories for adults, though not necessarily as historically accurate as that comic children’s series: it’s variable in tone and effect, but despite some uncertain moments on the whole it works.

It’s strange, though, to find a film with this theme released at this particular point in Britain’s political history. The King focuses on the prevailing chaos in Britain as a result of Henry IV’s policies, England’s conflicts with the Scots and the Welsh, on Britain’s relationship with France and the leadership needed to re-conquer that country and unite this country. It is tempting to see this as a metaphor for the current Brexit mess in Britain and to pair up parallel roles with characters then and now. Do reforms still require regime change? Could Boris Johnson really be the dissolute prince who will surprise us all with the ability to become a great ‘world king’? Should Brexit be sorted out by hand-to-hand combat between Johnson and Macron? The current British government’s use of warlike similes in its proclamations shows how little has changed in our country’s attitude to Europe. But perhaps the strength of the film is that a range of readings is also possible. Where we Britons see Brexit and Britain in The King, Americans see Trump and the US.

The King premiered in the UK as American Airlines Gala of the BFI London Film Festival on 3 October 2019 and also screens on 4 and 6 October 2019.

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