Timothée Chalamet in The King: England’s legendary warrior prince is reinvented as a petulant and introverted man-child in this ponderous revision of Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry V plays

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Warning: This review contains spoilers.

There’s never any Shakespeare on Netflix, the online streaming channel which seems to specialise in teenage shows about Satanism and suicide. Still, we’ve held off cancelling our subscription in order to see The King.

The film is the brainchild of Joel Edgerton, who co-writes, produces and plays Falstaff. His fellow Australian David Michôd (who made the excellent Animal Kingdom) directs and co-writes. The project first came to our attention a couple of years ago when Edgerton made some comments about cutting the “long-winded” Shakespeare speeches and adding some Game of Thrones spirit to proceedings. I tweeted scathingly about this at the time, but to be fair to Edgerton, he has played Prince Hal and Henry V on the Australian stage, and he seems like a pretty open and honest (not to mention talented) bloke, so his vision for The King might just work…

The film has a pretty striking opening with young northern noble Hotspur (Tom Glynn-Carney) sending an unfortunate Scottish spear-carrier the way of all flesh. Then we see Hotspur in conference with King Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn), where he refuses to hand over his prisoners, and spits out a selection of scathing and treasonous insults in his monarch’s direction.

We then relocate to the tavern where Henry’s elder son Prince Hal (Timothée Chalamet) is misbehaving. We quickly learn that Hal really hates his Dad. In fact, his bad-mouthing of the old man is almost as treasonous as Hotspur’s.

By now we’ve been introduced to Falstaff (Joel Edgerton). Now, Shakespeare’s Falstaff is infamous for being exceedingly old and humongously fat, but Joel Edgerton is neither. His Falstaff has a bluff rugby player physique and his character is full of bluff ‘wisdom’ to match. His accent sounds Yorkshire to me, but at different points in the film will veer from Mancunian to Scouse to Scots. Initially, he seems more Hal’s Kindly guardian than the gleeful corrupting influence of Shakespeare’s version.

The film does have some nicely framed interiors – there, put that on the DVD sleeve! But storytelling cliches abound – so of course we have to have the hero refusing his quest in the form of Hal refusing to go and see his dying dad (and later refusing to go to war with France) and so on.

Hal surprisingly bests the rebel Hotspur in a bout of single combat rather early in the film, which of course robs the confrontation of the revelatory power it has in Henry IV Part 1. At this point my impression of Hal is that he’s a somewhat sulky, slightly slimy, sexually ambiguous vampire who seems unable to make eye contact, treats people like dirt, and is no friend of the square meal. The traits of Shakespeare’s Hal, which have fascinated audiences and readers for 400 years are clumsily smelted into an uneasy mixture of narcissism and self-hatred. Well, I suppose that’s very 2019. The problem is that he seems too languid to ever have truly been a hell raiser. This Hal is less Bullingdon boy and more lonesome emo.

Anyway, the events of the Henry IV plays are raced through in 30 minutes as Henry senior dies and Hal becomes King Henry V. Then there’s an interesting scene where Henry receives congratulatory gifts from the rulers of places mentioned in other Shakespeare plays. This scene also reveals Henry’s court to be surprisingly small and rather parochial. From France, he receives the insulting gift of a ball (in the play, of course, it’s a box of tennis balls), which he bounces off a wall in a manner reminiscent of Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

Stripped of Shakespeare’s poetry and wit, this script can feel ponderous and banal. Chalamet certainly isn’t helped by clunksome lines like “I appreciate your umbrage, William”, but compared to Saoirse Ronan in this year’s Mary Queen of Scots he’s almost likeable. And at least we haven’t had a gender studies lecture yet. Oh, hang on though – there’s still one hour and 40 minutes left to go.

As a new king, Henry’s approach is to pardon all his dead dad’s enemies. Although when his Chief Justice (Sean Harris) says “Great reforms are best enacted with regime change” it sounds like it’s come straight off the autocue at a White House press briefing.

I may have dreamed it, but I think there’s a bizarre moment where Henry’s kid sister (Thomasin McKenzie) strokes a camel. She’s the Princess of Denmark and wise beyond her years, so she gives him sage advice (presumably before boarding a private jet to go and combat climate change). Henry reiterates how “all the unrest in the kingdom” was his father’s fault. His anti-dad hatred really is deeply unappealing, especially since the old man seemed pretty cool, from what we saw of him. At this point, I feel my attention waning. The film seems headed for the valley of sanctimony.

And I feel bad for saying it, but the longer Timothée Chalamet is on screen, the more the film’s vitality seems to ebb away. At times I find myself wondering ‘why are we wasting time with this fella?’ as he just seems like a minor character. We want Henry the bloody Fifth, not some twitchy man-child.

“You wish to be a king for the people” says the Sean Harris advisor guy a bit later. Then he mentions “the mood of the people”. I get the impression he used to work for Tony Blair. After having played a severely constipated Macduff in Kurzel’s Macbeth, Harris’s approach here seems to be to recite every line as if he has a hedgehog in his throat.

After a French assassin is caught, Henry decides to send some tough words back to Charles of France. But will he ever stand up straight, that’s what I want to know? That stoop is really starting to grate. Also, there’s 86 minutes left, and I’m beginning to wonder if anything will ever happen. For a film that set out to cut all the “long-winded” Shakespeare, there is an awful lot of talk. Yes, Shakespeare can be slow-moving, but the pace of The King is positively glacial.

Some traitors are caught, but when Henry says “Tomorrow you will have your heads cut off”, the timing of the line is so odd that I burst out laughing. His next line, “I have chosen you as an advance party to Hell”, sounds like something out of The Expendables. We are nudging into ‘so bad it’s bad’ territory.

At this point I’m wondering how can Chalamet be such an uncompelling lead. He’s got good hair, great cheekbones, he’s quite beautiful in an early-’80s English pop star way, but where’s the vitality? It makes me appreciate how bone-crunchingly brilliant Tom Hiddleston was in this role. The Hollow Crown was historical pageant, bawdy comedy and medieval action movie, but still Shakespeare through and through. I can understand the need for a radically different approach (if, indeed, the makers of The King are even aware of The Hollow Crown), but why so dull?

The subsequent execution scene is well done, and properly horrible. My prayers have been answered and Henry is finally sitting up straight. An absurd twist promptly follows – Henry returns to the tavern to recruit Jack Falstaff because there’s no-one else he can trust.

This is the point at which Falstaff’s accent veers into Scottish, while Henry’s dialogue is now so cumbersome it’s like he’s gargling marbles.

By now I’ve pinpointed what bothers me about Chalamet’s performance: it’s like he’s heavily medicated. And the mumblecore performance simply doesn’t work in the medieval context. Okay, I can appreciate you don’t want to be bellowing like Olivier, but how’s this going to work in the upcoming battle scenes? Are you going to whisper to the troops? Use sign language?

And so it is that Falstaff – Shakespeare’s legendary coward, wastrel and bullshit artist – is here introduced to Henry’s captains as a heroic battle veteran who’s going to lead them. I don’t know what they were thinking, but this is surely the apotheosis of Hollywood/Globalist Entertainment Corp idiocy.

It’s like those Stallone films where Rocky and Rambo make a creaky comeback, except Joel Edgerton doesn’t really look old enough to be making a comeback. And how weird that Falstaff, who famously wasn’t in Henry V, now seems to have become the main character.

So we get to France, where there’s some good siege engine action, and Chalamet seems more charismatic when speaking French. It’s a fugly film, though – the English are just a succession of interchangeable dour men with pinched faces and slightly overcooked regional accents. Falstaff has now overtaken Henry as the most annoying character, but Henry seems to be in love with him. And then the Dauphin (Robert Pattinson) turns up to chat in the middle of the night.

This is an eccentric performance by Robert Pattinson. Well known for playing a vampire in The Twilight Saga, he threatens to drain Henry’s body of blood. He’s like a Monty Python character, but he does capture some of the prideful idiocy of Shakespeare’s Dauphin. However, R-Patz quickly reveals a predilection for decapitating little English boys, so it’s clear he needs a serious talking-to.

There is some semi-interesting stuff about methods of waging war, but Falstaff is becoming such a pompous bastard and it’s all terribly heavy handed. Maybe if the whole thing was in French it would fool me into thinking it was good.

The subsequent Henry-Falstaff face-off seems to imply sexual intimacy, as did the scene at the beginning where Hal performed impromptu surgery on Falstaff – yes, really.

There are so many lulls in the action that even the lulls have lulls. Which makes me ponder that whenever people set out to make Shakespeare “less long winded” they always follow the same approach: 1. They take out all the good stuff. 2. They replace it with a bunch of new stuff which paradoxically has the effect of slowing everything down and bumping up the run time, and 3. They just generally make it incomprehensible. Ergo: The King.

There is so much that could be cut here: a scene where a messenger is called for and issued instructions like it’s going to be significant but then nothing much happens as a result of it. And the other problem is that it’s so static. Too many scenes of people sitting and talking, or standing and talking, or walking slowly and talking. The very things that stage versions of Henry V try to avoid, this film can’t get enough of them.

Well, it’s the eve of the battle and surly Falstaff has revealed himself to be a master tactician and all-round dispenser of earthy wisdom. Henry, however, hopes to avoid battle, and challenges the Dauphin to single combat – well, it worked with Hotspur.

The Dauphin responds with gross sexual insults, so Henry finally gets really riled and gives a stirring speech to his troops. Okay, it’s not Shakespeare, but at least he puts some much-needed vim and vigour into it.

The battle (Agincourt) is well done, especially when Henry enters the fray and we follow him from one crashing life-or-death martial encounter to another. It’s literally hand-to-hand combat, often dispensing with weapons altogether. We don’t even see Henry wield a sword until a satisfying encounter with the Dauphin, which I won’t spoil. Suffice it to say, it’s a rare occasion where a major change to Shakespeare (and to actual historical events) works really well.

We bid adieu to Falstaff, but now Henry goes to meet the French king – another windbag – who proposes that Henry marry his daughter Catherine (Lily-Rose Depp), or Princess Stony McStoneface, to give her full title.

(Is it deliberate that Timothée Chalamet is so un-kingly in this? On the voyage back to England he looks like a little orphan boy in one of the Titanic’s lifeboats.)

A bit of romance would be nice at this point, but Princess Stony has other ideas. “I will not submit to you,” she announces in a drab monotone. “You must earn my respect”. A minor point, but Princess Stony has just told us that she doesn’t speak English, but then proceeds to inform Henry at great length what a worthless little toerag he is – in English. At any rate, it feels like the aforementioned gender studies lecture has arrived. Or maybe it’s a job interview. “Do you feel a sense of achievement?” she asks icily. I’m half expecting her to follow up with “Why do you want to work in Human Resources?”

Admittedly, the acting styles are fairly complementary here – in that he’s a blob of jelly and she’s a plank of wood. In Shakespeare, of course, this scene is played for bilingual laughs – although recent stage productions have done everything in their power to remedy that. And so she sneers while he squirms, but once again it’s a scene with two people talking while seated. It’s not exactly a rollercoaster thrill-ride.

“All monarchy is illegitimate,” Princess Stony opines. Which is great, as I was just thinking that what this film needs is an injection of Neo-Marxist theory.

“It would seem that you have no explanation for what you have done,” she continues, with all the moral authority you’d expect from someone whose brother liked to chop children’s heads off. Clearly rattled, Henry then turns detective to uncover the true motives of his shifty war enthusiast of a Chief Justice. So now we’ve had three awkward scenes of static conversation in a row. This time, however, Timothée Chalamet sits while Sean Harris is commanded to stand precariously on a stool. I can’t help thinking it must be a metaphor for something.

Finally the film ends. So what have we learned? I dunno, maybe ‘Don’t send a man-child to do a warrior king’s job’? We are a couple of hours older, not a lot wiser, and there’s still no Shakespeare on Netflix. Ah well, at least we can cancel our subscription now.

The King was released on Netflix on 1 November 2019.