The Australian film-maker David Michôd has been interested in the themes of lineage, loyalty, corruption and succession since his 2010 crime drama debut Animal Kingdom. It makes sense, then, that four films into his career (and with a Netflix-sized budget) he’d scale up – and what could be more high stakes than Shakespeare?
Borrowing his characters from Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V but dispensing with his iambic pentameter, Michôd and co-writer Joel Edgerton fashion The King as a straightforward and plainspoken coming-of-age tale centring on Timothée Chalamet’s Prince Hal.
A dishevelled and drunken party boy unfit for, and uninterested in, inheriting the throne, Hal finds himself thrust into power (and a fur-trimmed velvet cape befitting Cruella de Vil) anyway following the deaths of his father Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn) and younger brother Thomas (Dean-Charles Chapman). Soon enough, the self-proclaimed pacifist is willingly mussing his Goldsmiths-issue haircut in combat following a provocation issued by the Dauphin of France, played by a smirking Robert Pattinson with a blond wig and a goofy accent that distracts but nevertheless entertains.
The battle scenes have a crunchy, tactile feel, all swords slicing chainmail, but there’s something standard-issue slick about the rest of the proceedings. An overhead crowd shot of the mud-streaked Battle of Agincourt appears to crib directly from Game of Thrones’ Battle of the Bastards. Hal’s right-hand man Falstaff (Joel Edgerton) has also been sanded down. In this version he’s less lively tragicomic foil than unflappable, infallible soldier. Even more frustrating is Chalamet’s Hal, who is never as compelling as the machinations around him. There’s no sincere inner conflict, neither righteous pride nor concealed Machiavellian impulse. Alas there is only inevitable competence.