Both Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir Kenneth Branagh have previously directed and starred in adaptations of William Shakespeare‘s Henry V. Following in their footsteps and looking to give a fresh take on this notable Shakespearean tale are director David Michôd and actor Timothée Chalamet.
The King is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s three-play “Henriad” in which Prince Hal (Chalamet) reluctantly succeeds his father King Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn) and is tentative in going to war with France. Despite following the original story, albeit a cut-down version, Michôd and co-writer Joel Edgerton (who also acts in the film) forgo the Elizabethan iambic pentameter for modern English. This choice is understandable, as Shakespearean language alienates some audiences, but some of the dialogue replacing it is jarring given the 15th-century setting. There is a further difficulty engaging with The King due to many actors delivering their lines hoarsely. After a while, such contrived delivery becomes irritating.
Many actors that have received theatre training see performing Shakespeare as a pinnacle of acting, and perhaps Chalamet shares this belief. Despite his middle name being Hal, he never seems to succeed in the role. For a large part of the runtime, he does not deter from a pensive expression, which keeps the audience at a distance rather than drawing them in. Joel Edgerton plays one of Shakespeare’s most notable supporting characters, Sir John Falstaff, a companion of King Henry V, and his lighthearted performance helps lift the film. Robert Pattinson‘s performance is also welcome opposite Chalamet’s Henry V as a foul-mouthed egotistical French Dauphin.
The locations and costumes make The King an appealing film, but along with the scene composition, it does not look too dissimilar from the mini-series The Hollow Crown (which also adapts the same plays). There are many comparisons to be made between The King and other films and television shows, which makes it feel unoriginal. The only other unconventional aspect aside from the dialogue is the fight sequences. The realistic depiction of what it would be like to fight in heavy armour is intriguing but lacks dramatic choreography. Similarly, like the use of modern language, it does not quite succeed in creating an impact.
Some of Shakespeare’s work resonates with audiences today despite being written over four hundred years ago. There are social and political overtones that are not unlike today’s climate, and the closing scenes of The King capture this. Though its final poignancy is compelling, The King feels overlong and this is because it never diverts from its measured pace. Yet unlike some Shakespearean adaptations, The King is more accessible to a wider audience but it is not likely to be remembered as one of the better interpretations of William Shakespeare’s work.