David Michôd has yet to make a great film. He’s an effective director, though, and most of his films are at least visually impressive. He must be a blast to work with because he keeps drawing back top tier collaborators like Robert Pattinson, Guy Pearce, Ben Mendelsohn, and screenwriting partner, Joel Edgerton. On top of that, he’s corralled new stars like Brad Pitt, Timothée Chalamet and Lily-Rose Depp on the way, which suggests his screenplays look promising. Yet despite his inability to top his debut feature, Animal Kingdom, Michôd’s 9-year career is still cruising along unfettered. Unfortunately, his newest film, The King, is like his past three: not great, not awful, just fine.
It’s the early 15th century and England is knotted in a perpetual state of warfare with rebel Scotch and Welsh armies. Hal (Chalamet), Prince of Wales and heir to King Henry IV (Mendelsohn), abhors his father’s cruelty in creating and sustaining said warfare. Financially speaking, Hal’s taken care of, but emotionally, he might as well be orphaned. He dwells in that identity by living outside of the palace among peasants. Henry IV despises his son as much as his son despises him. He hates Hal’s unruly lifestyle, an unceasing concoction of booze, sex, and shooing away morning visitors while hungover.
Falstaff (co-writer Edgerton) — a beefy brute and unassuming war tactician who’s as comfortable in squalor as he is in debt — is his only consistent friend, likely because he has no regard for Hal’s royalty, i.e. he doesn’t do etiquette. He and Hal have a jolly time crushing pints and rallying to tavern sing-a-longs, Falstaff always looking out for his youthful friend. But his kindness isn’t his greatest quality — that award goes to his ability to predict the rain based on a feeling in his knee, like Karen with her boobs in Mean Girls.
Early on, Henry IV falls fatally ill and calls Hal back to the royal palace to tell him he’s giving the throne to his younger brother. It comes as a surprise to no one on screen, but off screen there was a collective giggle in the audience when everyone realized that the little brother taking over the throne was none other Dean-Charles Chapman reprising his role as Tommen Baratheon in Game of Thrones, only this time his name is Thomas and his face somehow looks 10 years older.
It isn’t long before — without spoiling how he gets there — Hal assumes the throne as King Henry V. He doesn’t do anything unethical or nasty to get there. The new king is a good man and England is much better of in his hands, which cradle the country under a quilt woven with peace and political transparency. The only negative aspect of Hal’s transition to the throne is the replacement of his adorably curly chin-length locks with a heinous bowl cut. Let’s just assume that was of the times.
More importantly, Hal is quick to leave his drunkenness behind in order to drive England towards serious reform in regards to the shitstorm of international affairs his father left him. The difference in diplomacy between the Henrys serves as the center stage wrestling match within the film long after Henry IV has died. Where IV pursued total domination, V pursues treaties. Where IV wanted annihilation, V wants rebirth. Where IV showed weakness through unfeeling cruelty, V shows courage through careful consideration.
However, enough long-distance taunting from the Dauphin of France (Pattinson) forces Hal’s hand. In typical V fashion, he talks through peaceful options at great length with his advisors (Falstaff among them), debating the value of war, the sickness of power, and the absurdity of thousands dying over a few monarchs’ pride and shallow distaste for one another. But the Dauphin’s cantankerous attitude is too openly insulting for Hal to ignore and retain the respect of his people.
Pattinson is brilliant as the rambling French asshole. He’s a goofy villain who within minutes of meeting Hal manages to slander the English language (“simple and ugly”) like a middle school bully blurting out your-mom jokes to get a reaction, and he sends chills up our spines through appearance alone — a ghost white face with a waterfall of yellow hair oozing from the top. Moreover, he delivers every quick, dotted English line in his intentionally garish French accent. What’s camp, we ask? This performance.
If there’s a crowning achievement in the screenplay, it’s the diligence and brevity with which Michôd and Edgerton prompt us to think about how cruel the past was, and — in an age when it’s cool to say things like “nothing’s changed” — how far we’ve truly come from those inchoate societies. Of course, there’s a seemingly infinite amount of ground to make up before equality is achieved, but The King reminds us we should all be thankful we’re in the coin-flipping stage of human evolution.
The difference between Henry IV and Henry V spotlights the unabashedly vain mess that was medieval warfare. “I don’t like that country! Send 50,000 men to pillage, rape, and kill! Then we, the royal party, will celebrate our grandeur!” That’s not a quote from the movie, but it might as well be. Even Hal, in all of his hope for peace, must settle for 1-on-1 death-matches in lieu of full-fledged battles at times. There simply is no nonviolent option. And for what? Earlier in the film, after Hal stops one of Thomas’s battles from ever beginning, Thomas furiously berates his brother, “This field was to mark my dominion!” The subtext reads, “I’m unbelievably selfish. All of these men must die so the next few generations of people might think of me when they look at the grass.” Moreover, the balance of power among princes and generals and other high ranking non-kings is nebulous most of the time.
Then there’s the Archbishop of Canterbury, a greedy fool that gets hoisted around in lavish litters while Hal casts him well-deserved dirty glances. He thirsts for war (i.e. power), so he bribed his way into having a say in it. He’s essentially comic relief, a punching bag for all to enjoy, Christians and non-Christians alike, because anyone who supports a medieval crusader mentality belongs in prison, and The King isn’t getting released in prison.
However, Michôd and Edgerton’s script is equally full of Hollywood conventions and fluff, like, “A king has only followers and foe” — a line that sings in the moment, but whose lyrics couldn’t be more empty upon further inspection. The point is taken: world leaders have too much responsibility to have friends. But that obviously isn’t true. Everyone has friends. It’s just cheap screenwriting, and it’s irritatingly prevalent.
What’s also prevalent is the fact that in a matter of three years from when he exploded onto the international stage, Chalamet has grown from cute boy to grown man, even if he still looks like a cute boy sometimes. He’s on screen nearly every minute and delivers a powerhouse performance. He embodies a commanding leader — one who earns respect instead of demanding it — with a complex makeup, a remarkably mature combination of kind, intelligent, and terrifying. Chalamet wears the war within Hal on his sleeve in every frame. The metatext of the script makes it seem like the role was written for him. Late in the movie, Hal references himself as “the boy I once was.” In another instance, a swordsman shouts more seriously than it seems possible, “Where be the big dog?” in reference to the young king.
Michôd’s gargantuan medieval war epic touts gorgeously shot, Battle of the Bastards-esque execution (mud-drowning and all), emotion that tarries between laughable and tear-jerking, and a gaggle of great actors trying brand new things. But after 133 minutes have come and gone, the heart of The King reigns supreme over the film itself, and it’s forthright: communicate clearly and be honest. That’s our best bet for a nonviolent future, as Hal would have it.