Ruairí McCann on David Michôd’s ‘The King’ (2019)
In an interview for the Criterion Collection, the actor Keith Baxter recalls that Orson Welles’ film Chimes At Midnight (1965), the director’s finest rendition of Shakespeare on screen, originated not from a burst of unvarnished creative intuition but the ashes of another project—a theatrical production of the same name that combined Shakespeare’s Henriad cycle which, according to its most common definition, constitutes Richard II, Henry IV Part 1 & 2 and Henry V. The tour was cut short by commercial failure, prompting a realisation for Welles that he had taken on too much. So he pared it down to its emotional essentials, a love triangle of sorts, involving Prince Hal / Henry V and his two father figures, his actual pater familias, the imperious Henry IV and his close friend and confidante, the drunken dynamo Sir John Falstaff.
Rather than use Welles as a stick to beat ambition, this anecdote shows the enormous challenge that Australian director David Michôd, along with his co-writer and star in the role of Falstaff, Joel Edgerton, is setting for his fourth feature. An adaptation, with liberties, of three of the Henriad plays, Henry IV Part 1 through to Henry V—complex works all, interlaced with a vast web of characters and historical-political context. Though as a common thread they all have the development of the young Hal or Henry (Timothée Chalamet), who starts life as the Prince of Wales but ends up King Henry V. As a prince he is more interested in drinking like a fish, sleeping around and carousing with low down companions such as Falstaff than practicing statecraft. But the death of his father (Ben Mendelsohn) hands him the crown and places him on a path of succumbing to the cunning and coldness required to be a successful autocrat.
Michôd and Edgerton swap and change Shakespeare’s lines for their own, and condense the plot and cast by choosing to emphasise Henry V over the first two plays, essentially turning the latter into a prelude as the film’s first 30 or so minutes. The remaining hour and 50 minutes then are devoted to the young King Henry’s navigation of his court’s habits and pitfalls and then war in France where the action climaxes with the Battle of Agincourt. This fundamental decision, to emphasise King over Prince is risky since the memory of the latter, the Dionysian who still had room in his heart for fraternity and compassion, hangs over the man he will eventually come. This root image Michôd is still set on maintaining, or rather, overemphasising; a morality tale in how absolute power corrupts.
Yet this is sabotaged from the beginning by a lack of humanity in this unilaterally joyless and grey depiction of an England on the cusp of the modern era. A largely indoor world as well, confined, at least until the film up and departs across the channel, to draughty stone interiors, dark save for snatches of day and candlelight and populated by nobles and advisors who wear excessively sombre masks to hide their Machiavellian intentions. This tone is sought at the almost total expense of the humour and poetry of the original text with the effect that Chalamet’s performance interprets Hal as a scowling twink who if he finds any pleasure in his initially free-wheeling lifestyle it is presented, overly truncated, in a single seconds-long shot of revelry.
Mostly he is seen in this first act either lazing, alone or accompanied, in a rented room or moping around about town before he is reluctantly pulled into combat. According to this conception of the character the appeal of being devil may care is not that it offers frisson but oblivion that is preferable to the disdain of an estranged father and the immorality of a throne that requires iron fist. Yet Michôd clearly does not have the facility to coax a performance of walking despair, or how later that can be moulded into a more ruthless form. Instead, Chalamet mostly looks bored, or when he is being presented as heroic, despite his depressive haze, insipid. The results are not a young and impressionable man tortured by royal expectations but Chalamet’s faux profound callow teen from Lady Bird (2017), but taken deadly serious.
This superficial grit is not confined to this central performance or even to those in support but underpins the entirety of the film’s aesthetic principles. For its cinemascope frame has the desaturated palette, gloom and is accompanied by the relentlessly portentous score that makes up the set ambience and signifier for ‘serious’ work across the mainstream of multiple moving image sectors. Particularly in television and streaming as variations of this look can be found in the History Channel’s The Vikings (2013- ), in HBO’s Game of Thrones (2011-2019) and, to go beyond straight fantasy and historical fiction, various entries in this decade’s mélange of scandi-noir and British TV procedurals.
The problem with this aesthetic is that, while it is meant to fit a cruel and grimy world, its mute and polished lighting schemes give too much of a professional sheen for it to wholly pursue what would be an ‘uncommercial’ style. While at the same time, its avoidance of dynamic colour range and textures seems more often a front, conscious or unconscious, for a disinterest in the expressive qualities of colour and composition. Michôd goes for obvious and momentarily eye-catching motifs such as lines of courtiers or soldiers running the length of the frame, or the symmetry of royal ceremonies and processions, but otherwise too often relies on claustrophobic close-ups and two-shots of characters debating in bare rooms, blandly staged with the world either out of sight or focus.
There is one positive element and it appears once the film reaches France. It is Robert Pattinson as The Dauphin, a silken and sadistic product of privilege who, jester-like, taunts Chalamet’s young King on the warpath. He exists in striking contrast to the rest of the cast, with his pristinely pale features and long blonde hair versus the Brits’ panoply of ruddy features topped with bowl cuts with shaved sides or matted manes. Their performances are naturalist adjacent and fit personalities that are parsimonious, including the least Falstaffian Falstaff ever, while Pattinson enthusiastically overacts. Behaving like a stock, ethnically coded villain pulled out of a Classic Hollywood B-movie and plopped in the 15th and 21st century with his unnatural posture and a haltingly flamboyant diction, which is introduced while he’s giddily mocking the size of Henry’s cock in a French accent as off as Pepe Le Pew’s. Even though he is ultimately underused, Pattinson is the one lively element in a film that is otherwise rigid and leaden.
The King is streaming on Netflix now.