Warning: This review contains mild spoilers for The King.
Despite the hype, the first bowl cut we see in The King doesn’t belong to Timothée Chalamet, but to another beautiful boy, Tom Glynn-Carney. He plays rebel leader Henry “Hotspur” Percy, the first of many handsome threats faced by Prince Hal (Chalamet), as he morphs into King Henry V. And though his screen time turns out to be brief, Percy sets the scene for what’s to come. For what is The King, really, if not an epic tale about men with weird hair and good cheekbones fighting for control?
Director David Michôd’s take on William Shakespeare’s “Henriad” — from a script co-written by Joel Edgerton (who also plays Henry’s mentor and friend John Falstaff) — is a coming-of-age story wrapped in the trappings of royalty and medieval warfare. Peel back the layers of ermine-trimmed robes, heavy armour, and courtly speak, and you’ll find Chalamet playing a character following a similar arc as Elio from Call Me By Your Name. This is a story about a boy figuring out what it means to grow up. And in this case, that often means fighting other boys on a similar journey.
When we meet the soon-to-be Henry V, then known as Hal, Prince of Wales, he’s living in a ramshackle room in the London slum of Eastcheap, having shirked his royal responsibilities for a life of drinking, and brooding in dark alleyways. He has no interest in ruling England, and seems almost relieved when his father spitefully informs him that he’s being passed over in the succession in favour of his younger brother, Tommen, er Thomas (Game of Thrones’ Dean Charles Chapman).
But as circumstances will have it, Hal does in fact inherit the crown. Before we know it, he’s shorn that halo of curls into an angular bowl cut, with the somber attitude to match. And though Percy is no longer a concern (I won’t spoil how that development comes about), King Henry V has more than enough enemies to keep him on his toes. The most pressing threat comes from across the English Channel. Henry’s advisors, led by a conniving Sean Harris, convince him that the King of France is plotting to have him murdered, an aggression that cannot go unanswered, lest Henry appear weak. And indeed, it does not.
A large chunk of the 140-minute run-time is devoted to Henry’s invasion of his Gallic neighbor, a campaign that, much like real-life war, provides some of the movie’s most tedious moments, but also some of its most exciting. Let’s start with the downers: Turns out, sieges are the medieval equivalent to being stuck in a waiting room, sans the latest tabloid magazines. The same goes for the endless marching on the way to an eventual confrontation, which was exhausting in Lord of the Rings, and continues to be so here.
But, just as The King seems doomed to become a series of bleak, muddy battles, Robert Pattinson — who is having a genuinely wild fall movie season — shows up as the blonde-waved Dauphin of France, delivering his lines in a deliciously destabilising high-pitched French accent that is entirely incongruous with the situation at hand. It’s the breath of fresh air The King needs to get back on track. All of a sudden, it’s no longer a movie about how war is bad, but one pitting Contemplative Timothée Chalamet against Sneering Dandy Robert Pattinson. Now we’re talking!
It helps that the battles themselves are a visual feast. Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw captures the slog and carnage of war in a way that feels fresh and ironically, beautiful.
No matter how long the siege, it’s worth sitting through for the shots framing a solemn Henry in the golden light of his flaming catapults against a midnight blue sky. In fact, this movie could have easily been called Timothée Chalamet By Candlelight: A Study In Contrasts. His angles are as sharp as the sword he carries, and the camera revels in finding new ways to show them off. This isn’t to play into Chalamet’s own vanity. Take one memorable shot that takes place during Henry’s coronation: The camera sensuously pans up Chalamet’s alabaster back as he is anointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, revealing shoulder blades that looked carved from stone. Is it a thirst trap? Yes. But it also illustrates his transition from fallible young man into a regal, almost ethereal, symbol.
That journey is what defines the cold stoicity of Chalamet’s performance. He does more subtle and restrained work here than we’ve seen from him in the past. Henry is an inexperienced boy pretending to be a leader of men. He may speak with the confidence of one who’s thought several moves ahead in a game of chess, but his body language betrays his vulnerability. His conversations with Falstaff, who joins the France campaign as its chief military strategist, speak of a young man desperate to have someone to lean on — only to find that he must stand alone.
Still, would it really hurt to make him just a little fun? I’m not asking for bagels or anything — just the backstory that was promised. Despite all the talk of Henry’s past as a drunken party boy, we barely get to see it. Shakespeare’s characters are famously full of levity and laughter to counter the heady treatises on the nature of power. But The King bypasses that in favor of “serious” action, and in doing so, gets a little too bogged down in its own self-importance. Edgerton’s Falstaff takes the edge off slightly with his bombastic enthusiasm and boorish charm, but The King relies too much on Pattinson’s performance as a way to shake the audience out of their dark corridor-whisper and palace intrigue-induced stupor.
In a way, that reflects the The King’s biggest problem: The sum of its individually compelling parts don’t quite add up. On the surface, it comes off as the kind of film that requires a big screen. The famous battle of Agincourt, which pits Henry’s forces against the French in a display of medieval courty warfare that would inspire generations of English kings, is simply spectacular. The camera follows Henry as he weaves his way through mud and blood, culminating in an almost unimaginable level of carnage, made even more memorable by Nicholas Brittel’s score, which builds up into a wave of majestic and rousing sound.
But as a Netflix release, most of this film’s audience will probably end up watching it in bite-sized chunks between various menial tasks. And while that may horrify some, it might actually work in The King’s favour. Some of the moments that feel lost within the sprawling narrative will end up being the most memorable as they permeate internet culture. One of them, I suspect, will be Lily Rose Depp’s turn as Henry’s intended, French princess Catherine de Valois, who uses her limited screen-time to chastise him with extreme Claire Foy in First Man “you’re a bunch of boys” energy.
It’s a welcome challenge to the film’s overwhelmingly male machinations. “I will not submit to you,” she sneers as Henry promises her his loyalty after bringing her family and her country to their knees. “You must earn my respect.” The beautiful boy may have won the battle, but it’s a woman who wins the war.
"The King" will be available to stream on Netflix November 1.