Screening History: “The King” (2019)

I’ve been really looking forward to watching the the new Netflix film The King. I’m a fan of Timothée Chalamet, and I thought that he’d make a good Henry V. I very much enjoyed the film which, while compressing several of Shakespeare’s Henry plays, still manages to hit most of the right notes.

As I was watching, I was struck by the ways in which the film straddles two very different registers. One is the expected one, the period drama, with its sumptuous clothes, its attention to plots and counterplots, the sweeping vistas. The other is the indy film, with its strangeness, the slightly off-kilter approach to plot, characterization, and dialogue that characterizes the indie film. Somehow, The King manages to weave all of these together into some sort of coherent whole. As I was watching, I was reminded strongly of The Favourite, which accomplished a similar feat of binding together the indie film aesthetic and the costume drama (though, on the whole, The Favourite is more disturbing than The King).

There’s a certain sequence in the film that stands out to me in this regard. Near the end of the film, the wily and cunning Gascoigne (played by the almost always strange Sean Harris) confesses that he misled the king in order to lead him to war with the French. When Henry demands that Gascoigne beg for his forgiveness, the old adviser does so, only to have Henry fatally stab him in the neck. The death is swift, brutal and, while not entirely unexpected, is nevertheless shocking in its banality. As Gascoigne lies twitching upon the floor, Henry leaves the chamber to confer with his new wife. It’s one of those moments that shocks you as a viewer, precisely because cinematic death is, as a rule, supposed to be surrounded with ceremony and buildup, to prepare yourself for the end of human life. Here, the film confronts us with the unpleasant that life, particularly in the Middle Ages, was in a constant state of precarity.

It must be said that a great deal of the film’s ultimate success comes down to Timothée Chalamet, who does an uncannily good job as one of history’s (and Shakespeare’s) most enigmatic characters. We’re never quite sure where we stand with Hal, who always seems to be putting on a performance: for himself, for his father, for the kingdom. It helps that Chalamet has a certain elfin beauty about him that goes together in a rather strange way with a core of iron, all of it masked by a sort of fey inscrutability.

Though Chalamet owns the film, the supporting cast turns in uniformly excellent performances. I’ve never been a huge fan of Joel Edgerton, but I give him a great deal of credit for his portrayal of John Falstaff (another of Shakespeare’s finest creations). So completely does Edgerton disappear into this character that there were times that I had trouble remembering that it was him. I was also struck by how different this Falstaff is from almost every interpretation that I’ve seen or heard of, in large part because he is so cunning and, it turns out, a keen military strategist. His death is understated, but nonetheless powerful, as we realize that Hal had a genuine fondness for this man who played such a key part in his youth.

There are a few strangely sour notes in the film. Robert Pattinson is a truly strange choice to play the Dauphin, all the more so because he challenges Hal to a duel that he ultimately doesn’t win. The film also feels a bit rushed, since we’re essentially covering the basic plot of not one but several very dense and layered plays. That’s an awful lot of material to cover in just one film, though The King does a passably good job at it.

All in all, I really quite enjoyed The King. While I have my doubts as to whether it will go down in history as one of the great adaptations of Shakespeare’s Henry plays, it does still manage to hold its own. If anything, I rather wish the film had been a bit longer, so that it could have explored more aspects of Hal’s character and the world that he inhabits. Still, it’s worth a watch, particularly for those who have an interest either in Shakespeare or the costume drama.

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