Timothée Chalamet is The King

Timothée Chalamet is The King

Still from the film The King directed by David Michod, Robert Pattinson as the Dauphin of France.

The King is David Michôd and Joel Edgerton’s reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV and V, combined with additional historical detail and told with a modern eye to story-telling. This is not an updated Shakespeare, it’s quite a different beast, but with Shakespearian roots. The story starts with young Prince Hal (Timothée Chalamet), living whatever passed for the party life-style in the early 15th century, and at odds with his ailing father, Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn), a war-monger and tyrant. 

Like Michael Corleone, Hal wants no part in the family business, and yet it’s not giving anything away to say, one thing leads to another and Prince Hal reluctantly becomes King Henry V. The newly anointed king is a very different man to his father, and vows to be a very different leader, utterly rejecting his father’s blood-thirsty brand of toxic masculinity that he and his court were famous for. The young Henry is a new kind of man, and new kind of king. Hope is his promise, but his advisor William (Sean Harris) warns he has to deliver.

This is a story of masculinity on one level, and power and politics on another. It looks at the effect these have on people and the roles they play. The writing is excellent, beautifully nuanced without being overwritten, and a plot that ticks along at a good but not frenetic pace. The acting is as good as it gets. Timothée Chalamet demonstrates he is every bit as talented as everyone keeps saying he is. The role of Henry is quite a different to those he’s played to date, and the story is entirely on his shoulders, and he carries it with a grace, strength and maturity we haven’t seen him play before. And while the story is his, he doesn’t have to carry it alone. His co-stars are all excellent, particularly Sean Harris and Joel Edgerton as his battle-worn friend Fallstaff, and I enjoyed Robert Pattinson’s turn as the French Dauphin also, but more about that later. The cinematography is nothing short of spectacular, using all natural light sources, the film feels intimate and personal, even in the seething chaos of battle.

I’ll save the more in-depth discussion for the spoiler section below. The King is on at Dendy Cinemas for a limited time, and will be streaming on Netflix from 1 November. Go and see it at the cinema, or wait for the small screen release, and then read my more in-depth take below.

In depth… with spoilers

This film is in many ways a classic historical drama of power, and politics punctuated with bloody battles, and while the setting of draughty stone castles may have changed, at its core the intrigues of politics and power come down to something very simple, and universal. After he wins the Battle of Agincourt, when Henry finally comes face-to-face with the fairly odd French King, the king makes a brief speech about family. He says that they, he and King Henry, are leaders of countries and armies, but the bloody dramas they play out on the battlefields are really about the conflicts within their own families. Henry with his father, King Charles VI of France with his son, the Dauphin. And this is the thread at the heart of this story. How the personal becomes political, and all the ways that plays out.

The unveiling of the true plot, of the private manipulations of William Chief Justice for his own (financial) benefit, reminded me of recent history. The George Bush Jnr years being the most obvious, a man being drawn into a war started by his father, and on the advice of people with other interests at play. And there are plenty more examples like this throughout history, and recently. Apparently writers David Michod and Joel Edgerton were deliberately angling for this parallel, also likening elements of this to the course of Barak Obama’s presidency. 

The character of the Dauphin, played by Robert Pattinson is one that hasn’t been discussed in any depth in any of the reviews I’ve read. Most seem to think of him as an almost comedic character, or even a Monty Pythonesque caricature, and while this is fairly accurate on the surface, I think there’s more to this character.

Pattinson is delightfully villainous as the Dauphin. The character of the Dauphin is almost a comic-book super villain (except that the lore of villainy has changed so much in the era of Marvel overload, that these days even super-villains are people too). He plays the role Hitler has played in so many war stories over the decade – an uncomplicated and unapologetic evil that gives the otherwise peace-loving heroes a reason to draw blood.

I’ve heard a few critics say they think Timothée Chalamet was too young for this part. That he didn’t quite pull it off. I couldn’t disagree more. This was an era when men as young as Timothée Chalamet, and younger ascended to positions of enormous power. The real Henry V was a little older when he became king, but not much, and aside from that, to me Chalamet is utterly convincing. He plays the subtly and complexity of this character and his evolution beautifully, and I found him a compelling Henry V and a young man I can believe led thousands into battle.

Given this whole film is seeped in realism, from it’s all-natural lighting, to its messy, seething battle scene, and its otherwise nuanced story and characters, the appearance of the Dauphin in the last half of the film marks a sudden departure, at odds with the realist aesthetic. I think it’s the strength of Robert Pattinson’s performance that pulls it just short of being ridiculous. The truth is, he is a joy to watch in this role. He manages to lift the action quite late in the game into something unexpected and pleasing to watch. And his character is a deliberate distraction. At the very end, his sister says the Dauphin was too stupid to have devised any cunning plans or sent an assassin. But the Dauphin was so obnoxious, so awful, that he provided King Henry a continued reason to wage war, to go against his clearly stated ethos and both conquer and slaughter. He was a distraction welcomed by Henry’s advisors, who had their own reasons for wanting to wage war with France.

The Dauphin is so clearly a bad egg, the audience goes along with Henry’s reasoning too. We want him to be a better King, but we get it that he’s got to do what he has to do, be strong, hold his ground, against this evil would-be assassin. Of course, it makes sense, he must be stopped, he gleefully murders small children for sport after all. And then, with the big reveal at the end about the power politics and greed really at play through this story, we find out the wicked Dauphin was just a convenient smoke screen, one which played right into the land-grabbing hands of the king’s trusted advisor, William. It’s sort of a genius story-telling device really, and I suspect also a knowing reference to recent events – someone who distracts attention through their unrelenting bad acts, providing a convenient smoke screen for the real power plays happening just behind the scenes.

I originally saw this film on the big screen, and while overall the use of natural light worked well and helped create beautiful shots and a nuanced atmosphere on screen, the cinema I saw this in perhaps hadn’t calibrated the projector correctly (or something like that) and many of the indoor shots in first half of the film were dark to the point of not actually being able to make out some of what was happening. I’m pleased to say that having rewatched this now (on Netflix), I think that was an issue with the cinema not the film. The use of natural light works well. It’s a creative decision that has been used from time to time over the years – notably in The Favourite most recently. And here it is used to create a sense of realism, but it also adds a beautiful and subtle painterly quality to some of the scenes. With The King I think it also adds to this idea of it being a personal story, despite its epic themes. The lighting, the framing, often tight shots in large rooms, spaces framed further with intimate lighting from scant windows or candles. This story is at once grand about king and country and responsibility, and also small, personal, about a young man trying to find a better way to be in the world, and the lighting helps paint that picture.

And of course I have to mention the Battle of Agincourt, which takes up a big piece of the last half of the film. This seething mass of men, snaking around each other almost like some sort of frenzied dance when shot from above, and then amongst it, it’s as confusing and messy and dirty as it must have been. We begin the battle with Falstaff, but once Henry joins the fight, we follow him with a stunning shot lasting a full two and a half minutes (I timed it… on the second watching) as he fights and slips and scrambles, is knocked down and moves through the scene. Through this shot you can almost feel the weight of the metal and mud, the sheer physical effort to manoeuvre through this chaos. It gives us a very personal perspective for this famous battle, while still giving us some insight into the chaos all around and what it must be like to be amongst it (As an aside, I still don’t know how soldiers in those days could tell who was on whose side. In their armour and chainmail, they all look alike, but I suppose there must have been a way people could recognise who they were supposed to be fighting?).

As to the theme of toxic masculinity, this seems to be an area David Michôd certainly has explored before, not least in Animal Kingdom (the film that made his name and launched the international careers of many Australian actors who had been locally famous for decades). Here it is drawn so beautifully, first through the personal conflict between father and son, and later through the various men at court who, over time, draw him in because they all think the same. These are men who believe that leadership is violence and domination. Hal sees things differently, but he is up against a court who not only believe this is the way things should be, but have a vested interest in it remaining so. Falstaff is the only one who sees things differently. He has nothing to gain or loose, and Henry brings him into the fold eventually, but it’s hard to hold out against so many voices saying the same thing – in this case that he must retaliate against France, he must draw blood or worse will happen, that this is the will of the people rather than the privileged few. The audience is drawn along with this reasoning also. It all sound difficult, but it makes sense within the world of the film. If he doesn’t show strength, all will be lost, surely? And this is where the history (and fiction), and the modern intersect. We all see that reasoning, because we effectively live in a culture that is not that far removed. It is the same reasoning that has taken us into war in modern times, more than once. It is no accident that the true motivation of Henry’s main adviser is revealed, by none other than Henry’s new wife Catherine of France (Lily-Rose Depp). A woman whose family’s entire claim to the throne is questioned soon after Henry becomes king by the Archbishop, because inheritance has been passed through the female line on specific occasions. So it’s the feminine influence that ultimately saves Henry, as he forms an alliance with his new wife over his court of advisors intent to keep things as they have always been because it suits their interests.

I really enjoyed this movie. The second watching as much as the first. Maybe even more. It’s an interesting story, well told, and the epic battle scene is spectacular and also riveting, and I don’t think I’ve ever said that about a battle scene.