In the realm of instantly recognizable Shakespeare lines, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends” is up there—it’s not quite “My only love, sprung from my only hate,” or “Out, damned spot,” but hey, it’s still pretty damn good! It’s deeply entwined with the sense of duty and resilience that Shakespeare’s Henriad plays communicate to us about 16th century England, and about various kings’ power struggles with the rest of Europe, and I don’t get how you make an adaptation of those plays without including it. Or without including any of Shakespeare’s instantly recognizable dialogue, really. That is where we’re at with The King, Netflix’s second movie in two years about a young monarch coming of age through blood. (Remember Outlaw King?!)
Directed by David Michôd (of the not-great War Machine, and the better The Rover and the original film version of Animal Kingdom) and co-written by Joel Edgerton, The King is a movie attempting to stand alone and separate from Shakespeare’s influence, and well, it doesn’t quite work. Its greatest strength is its visual language, which focuses on the tedium of war. Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (who also shot the gorgeous The Light Between Oceans, the Michael Fassbender Macbeth, and the first season of True Detective) uses gauzy natural light and inky shadows to convey the complicated, seemingly unnavigable quandaries in which young King Hal (Timothée Chalamet) is trapped. But the confidence of his lens can’t account for the film’s other missteps, which range from casting to writing.
The script often feels threadbare, relying on crossed arms and pouty faces to stand in for character development. I mean everyone crosses their arms and pouts to communicate their displeasure, including Edgerton and Sean Harris, who admittedly incorporate the right amount of gravelly gravitas to their performances. (Watch this movie with subtitles; the mumbly British accents are sometimes impossible to decipher.) Chalamet, who does his best, doesn’t yet have the emotional maturity or physicality to convincingly play a war-exhausted failson who is thrust into leadership. The movie wants us to laugh at a French-accented Robert Pattinson in a full suit of armor and belittle him as not manly enough, but that doesn’t quite work when the movie wants us to accept Chalamet as the more adult option. Switch the casting, and the film would have been more effective—although Pattinson hams it up so much that I’m at least glad my man enjoyed himself during filming.
The King opens on a battlefield, where an army commanded by King Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn) is fighting against Scottish rebels; under a sunset streaked with pink and gold, men and horses bleed out, stabbed and eviscerated and gouged. It’s another seemingly unnecessary war ordered by King Henry IV, who sees enemies everywhere—including in young Hotspur (Tom Glynn-Carney), who calls out his king’s paranoia and bloodthirstiness. When Hotspur decides to lead an uprising against Henry, who is dying, the king in turns passes along his pettiness, rivalries, and feuds to second son Thomas (Dean-Charles Chapman), to whom he is leaving the crown.
Thomas wants to prove himself on the battlefield and demonstrate that he is a worthy heir to his father, but there’s one little problem: Older brother Hal (Chalamet), who is estranged from his father. Hal has spent years getting drunk, sleeping around, and generally ignoring his princely duties to pal around with the washed-up warrior Falstaff (Edgerton), and he ignores his father’s commands to return to court and see him. When Hal learns that Thomas is marching to war for another one of his father’s whims, he decides to try and stop it—setting off a series of events that include duels, assassination attempts, beheadings, threats from France, threats to France, and an invasion and war. As Hal steps into responsibility, he’s pulled between two forces: Falstaff, whose years as a soldier have soured him to war (“The thrill of victory fades quickly; what lingers long after is always ugly”), and advisor William Gascoigne (Harris), England’s chief justice.
William has an idea of what he wants England to be, Falstaff has an idea of who he wants Hal to be, and they’re at odds with each other—and what Hal himself desires. When the Dauphin of France (Pattinson) sends Hal a ball as an insulting gift, the prince-turned-king is pulled into a confrontation that makes him closer to his father than he might want to admit.
The King outlines a royal life spent either inside dark, musty interiors, surrounded by people who desire power for their own ends, or outside on the battlefield, always one move away from death, also surrounded by people who might sacrifice you for their own survival. There is danger lurking in every corner, and The King taps into some of that by portraying Hal as an intuitive, underestimated figure who is smart enough to know there are vipers all around but inexperienced enough to trust the wrong people. That’s a fine mix for Chalamet in the film’s regal spaces—astride a throne, in a planning meeting, demanding answers from confidantes—but in war, he just can’t nail it. That pump-up-the-troops speech that cuts the “Once more unto the breach, dear friends” line falls horrendously flat because you have no idea why any of these men would trust Hal with their lives. One of the film’s greatest departures from Shakespeare’s plays is its use of Falstaff, whom Hal doesn’t abandon but instead brings into his inner fold. That choice serves no purpose other than giving Edgerton increased screen time; in fact, it diminishes Hal, who is supposed to be a military genius, because all of his good ideas are now given to Falstaff. The movie undermines its own titular character with that storytelling switch.
It’s all a very staid, stuffy affair, with glimpses of subversive greatness. The fight scenes are mostly awkward and graceless, which I am viewing as an intentional choice to demonstrate how brutal the time was; these aren’t beautifully choreographed duels. The clang of metal on metal as lords duel sounds awful, so grating that you can imagine the weight and discomfort of their armor and sense the desperation and panic of their movements. It is Hal’s younger sister Philippa (Thomasin McKenzie, who also does great work in Jojo Rabbit)—a teenage girl, not a man—who gives him the best advice he receives in the entire film: a warning not to trust anyone at court. And Pattinson’s ludicrousness feels purposeful: He’s working an accent like he’s Gambit from the X-Men, slouching in his throne like he owns all of France, and mocking Hal’s penis size. It’s such a tonal shift from the dryness of the other performances, and I treasured it. Compared with the rest of The King, which suffers from a rejection of Shakespeare’s lyrical language and reorganized character motivations, at least Pattinson is having some fun.
The King is currently streaming on Netflix in the U.S.