A Shakespeare adaptation without all that Shakespeare stuff, David Michôd’s “The King” goes once more unto the breach only to come up short.
“The King,” written by Michôd and Joel Edgerton, condenses Shakespeare’s Henriad — “Henry IV, Parts I & II” and “Henry V” — into a much more simplified tale of the wayward prince Hal (Timothée Chalamet) turned monarch. It’s generally difficult enough to adapt a single play of Shakespeare’s, but taking three in one swing — even with the ammunition of a bowl-cutted Chalamet and an extremely louche Robert Pattinson as the French dauphin — borders on folly.
“The King,” too, has dispensed with Shakespeare’s language and significantly tweaked one of the playwright’s greatest creations, Falstaff (played by Edgerton), turning the unruly paragon of self-indulgence (whom Harold Bloom has called “life itself”) into merely a melancholy military man. People can get prickly when you make drastic changes to Shakespeare. But if you’re going to come at “The King,” you better come correct.
The plays (the Henry-verse, if you will) stand as among the greatest portraits of power ever penned. Moving from Hal’s slow-building ambition to his transformation into King Henry V, they are about the cruel, cunning and perhaps necessary metamorphosis of a man into a king.
“The King” rapidly follows this political conversion, beginning with Hal’s drinking days with Falstaff (depicted only a slow-motion montage) and, after the death of his father King Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn), leading up to the pivotal Battle of Agincourt. But Michôd and Edgerton have some twists on the tale and some different things to say about the formation of rulers and the conquest of war.
This Hal’s youthful dalliances aren’t just him delaying his inevitable ascendance. Here he is firmly pacifistic, uninterested in adopting the squabbles and rivalries of his bitter, ailing father or the macho-machinations of his contemporaries. He’s disgusted by the relentless drumbeat of war. In an early scene, he tries to put a stop to a battle by earnestly appealing to their foe. In an attempt to stave off a bloody battle, he challenges their leader to a winner-take-all duel.
And, oh, how young Chalamet looks in these scenes. He seems too precious for mud and appears to weigh less than his sword. With a full suit of armor on, he looks only scantly larger than a tin can. That might be incongruous to history or, at least, to the traditional view of Hal, but it makes “The King” more interesting.
It’s a movie best seen less as a historical epic and more as a metaphor for a rising young movie star coming up in a culture he aims to subvert. Chalamet did as much at the movie’s red-carpet premiere (another red-colored battlefield), donning a glittering, sequined hoodie. This is a new kind of leading man, it’s clear enough, and he again proves himself more than capable of assuming that mantle in “The King.”
Michôd also seems more in command of the material here than he has since his breakthrough, the brooding crime saga “Animal Kingdom.” Like that film, “The King,” too, turns on a dark axis of family. And like Michôd’s previous film, the Afghanistan War satire “War Machine,” with Brad Pitt as a thinly veiled version of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, “The King” is ultimately about the dubious drive for war and the duplicitous nature of those who monger for it.
Shakespeare, of course, did that, too, in a more complicated balance. “Henry V” has its own nationalistic jingoism (“Upon St. Crispin’s Day”) but it was always countered, usually by Falstaff. Edgerton, here more rotund than he’s been before, plays the knight principally as a reluctant warrior. Falstaff makes his (off-stage) exit in “Henry V,” but “The King” keeps him along as Henry V’s trusted military adviser. Michôd’s most clever revision is in how artfully and skillfully he renders the film’s final battle at Agincourt, only to undercut it with a more disquieting concluding note.
Shakespeare, robbed of its poetry and its harmony, isn’t so much. But it will do. At least we have Pattinson’s campy French prince, who appears like a demonic Parisian rock star lounging backstage. He and Chalamet will make fine kings.
“The King,” a Netflix release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for some strong violence and language. Running time: 140 minutes. Two stars out of four.q