Premise: Hal, wayward prince and heir to the English throne, is crowned King Henry V after his tyrannical father dies. Now the young king must navigate palace politics, the war his father left behind, and the emotional strings of his past life.
The King may not be the longest, the most plot-heavy, or even the most complicated movie of 2019, but it may be the most tedious to get through. Here’s a fun parlor game you can play with your friends: gather everyone together and turn on The King. The first person to either nod off or check his or her phone loses. Best of luck to you, because I would have failed this challenge within the first 30 minutes.
Based loosely on Shakespeare’s “Henriad tetralogy”, The King follows the final days of England’s King Henry IV (Ben Mendlesohn) and the early rule of Henry V, or Hal, (Timothee Chalamet) in the late 16th century. While I’ve never read these specific plays, one doesn’t have to be a Shakespeare scholar to know that the man knows how to make a historic story dramatic and intriguing, full of richly drawn characters with interior and exterior struggles. Instead what we’re left with is 2 hours and 20 minutes of monotonous characters and dialogue. And when I describe this film as monotonous, I mean it in both senses of the word: much of the middle third is filled with drab conversations mostly between Hal and his various advisers, but also monotonous in that it’s a rarity for anyone to raise their voices above a normal speaking volume.
Director David Michod goes out of his way to illustrate how reluctant Hal is to ascend to the throne; he’s introduced sleeping and drinking his way across the English countryside and putting his life at risk through one-on-one combat. Shortly after he’s crowned as king, an assassin is sent from France to kill him, plunging the two countries back into the Hundred Years War. Why this assassin was sent isn’t clear at all, but tensions certainly flare when Hal receives a rubber ball – gasp! – as a coronation gift. What could have been a chance to paint a portrait of a young king’s obsession or inability to rule goes too far down the middle. Hal is neither a bad king nor a great king; he can certainly rouse the troops with a battlefield speech, but he’s too unsure of himself to make any major decisions alone. He hates violence, but he’s a brilliant strategist in war times, as he wins the infamous Battle of Agincourt.
Michod’s last film, War Machine, was another incomplete biopic of someone who got too far in over their head – in that case, General Glen McMahon and his handling of the war in Afghanistan. It had potential to be a great satire of the military industrial complex and the frustration of leadership, but got bogged down in an inconsistent script. Meanwhile, The King’s problems lie not only with its tiresome script, but the mostly bland way of depicting what should be absorbing drama. Even the siege of a French city, complete with flaming catapults in the night is filmed with the dramatic weight of a trip to the dry cleaners. It looks like Michod opted for practical effects over CGI for the bigger set pieces – which I can certainly appreciate – but there have to be more compelling ways to stage these sequences. Chalamet has made a name for himself playing brooding young men with something to prove, and Hal is no different. This is the type of role that Chalamet can play in his sleep, so it’s hard to see what he saw in this script. There’s plenty of potential to make Hal a sympathetic character who’s been burdened by the responsibilities of the crown, but after 300 different drab conversations, any goodwill he’s earned has been lost or forgotten – or, worse yet, you just won’t care.
The only spots where some life is injected to The King are where its supporting cast gets time to shine, including Thomasin McKenzie, who plays his sister in a criminally short scene. Lily-Rose Depp also makes a meal out of her role late in the film, as she plays Hal’s unwilling French wife after the Battle of Agincourt. Joel Edgerton, who co-wrote the film with Michod, plays John Falstaff, Hal’s closest friend and counselor, who goes through possibly the most noticeable change throughout the film. Why he undergoes this change, again, isn’t clear (maybe it was explained at one of the points when I dozed off), but the end of his arc gets brushed off with enough nonchalance that I cared about it as much as The King did. The only actor that brings any vibrancy to the film (literally and figuratively – this movie’s color palette is every shade of brown and gray) is Robert Pattinson, who looks like he’s having a lot more fun than was on the pages of the script. He plays the Dauphin of France, Hal’s enemy and equal on the field. Sadly, though, his screen time is so reduced that we almost wish we could get a spin-off film based around his character.
The King is too lifeless to be a historical epic like Braveheart or Spartacus, and it doesn’t have the compelling characters or drama to sit with the likes of The Favourite or Marie Antoinette. For starters, it’s too long and too weighted with its own importance. This isn’t a film that is bad enough to rile one up in anger. It’s certainly not the worst film of the year. No, the worst crime it commits is being forgettable. To put it bluntly, we can turn to Edgerton’s Fallstaff as he is advising Hal: “War is bloody and soulless”. So is The King.
* * * * *
FINAL TAKE: Look, I’m no English historian, but I have a hard time believing the future king is shirtless throughout the coronation ceremony.