The kindest way to make a case for the misbegotten Henry V saga The King is to imagine that its director, David Michôd, and his co-screenwriter, Joel Edgerton, wanted with all their hearts to do for Shakespeare’s Falstaff what Quentin Tarantino did for poor Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Give him an exhilarating new destiny. In this case, though, that means transforming one of literature’s epic libertines — the Lord of Misrule, the Clown Prince of Cowards, the leader into temptation of the heir to English throne, heartbreakingly renounced at the end of Henry IV Part II when Prince Hal is crowned King Henry V — into the wisest, bravest, most morally evolved mentor this side of Merlin the Magician. Yes, this Fat Jack (though not so fat, and played by Edgerton himself) is a drunk and a whoremonger, but his dissolution, we’re led to understand, came in the wake of the horrors that he witnessed fighting innumerable pointless wars. He’s a soldier who sees with the eyes of Shakespeare’s Michael Williams, who in Henry V says, “I am afeard there are few die well that die in battle.” As the new king’s most trusted adviser, he counsels against war with France — girding Henry’s own pacifist leanings — but is helpless before the tide of history. Agincourt draws on apace — i.e., shit happens.
I admire the ethical clarity of this retelling, as I admire this Falstaff for his bitterly realistic view of war and this Henry (played by Timothée Chalamet) for his vigorous moral contortions. But admiration has its limits. I hate that, in order to make a case against leaders who concoct bogus intel to dispatch their subjects/citizens to kill or be killed, Michôd and Edgerton have turned a story we still debate into the most dully conventional kind of morality play — one that gets duller and more predictable as it grinds along. With one exception: I didn’t predict Henry’s vigilante avenger gesture in the penultimate scene, which makes him seem like the Plantagenet Jack Reacher. (Question for discussion: Can a king be a vigilante if by definition he embodies the state? Tune in next week.) Henry’s impromptu murder is meant to show that he’ll now be morally accountable for his actions, which makes all kinds of non-sense.
Minus soliloquies, this Hal/Henry is not easy to read. He enters relatively late in the film, after Hotspur (Tom Glynn-Carney) has already commanded our respect and fear. In the opening scenes, Hotspur grimly executes a wounded rebel and then turns his wrath on King Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn) for refusing to pay ransom for an imprisoned ally. Glynn-Carney’s rage hits home, even if you don’t know the full particulars. That Hotspur is more compelling than Hal isn’t the problem — he’s more compelling in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1, too. But he sticks around until the end of the play, whereas here he’s gone so fast that we’re brought up short. So now it’s just dreary, depressive Hal?
It pains me to say that Chalamet is only okay, which reflects less poorly on the actor than on me. I rhapsodized over his performance in Beautiful Boy, ending with the question, “How’s his iambic pentameter? I smell something rotten in Denmark if he has the technical skills.” (Don’t you hate when critics anoint young actors on the basis of two or three performances? And we never learn.) In any case, Chalamet has a ways to go before tackling Hamlet. His Prince Hal looks like a bony, whey-faced, lank-haired Tim Burton protagonist, an emo rich boy who angrily tells his father he has no interest in the throne and then, out of nowhere, manifests world-class fighting skills — but only because he’s a peacenik and wants to prevent further fighting. It’s a hopeless conception. Once crowned, his refusal to stick to his father’s martial agenda — first taking France, then marching on to Jerusalem — outrages the lisping archbishop and interferes with the plans of sundry lords to procure French real estate at fire-sale prices. It’s at that point that the new king reaches out to Falstaff. “I acknowledge my neglect of you, John,” he says, shamefaced, and the movie goes downhill from there, building to Agincourt in the modern, antiwar tradition — a series of ugly scrums in which blood and mud commingle and no one feels like high-fiving. Again, I admire the sentiment but wish Michôd had crafted something more surprising. Henry’s “realistic” St. Crispin’s Day speech wouldn’t fire up runners at a charity 5K.
The King has enough in its coffers to keep you moderately engaged. Edgerton would be fine by any other name, though the character’s combination of dissipation, moral superiority, and tactical genius would still be a groaner. Mendelsohn is, as always, startlingly present, his Henry IV in the final stages of poisoning from the fear that someone will do to him what he did to Richard II. Behind a white beard, Sean Harris — the creepy criminal mastermind of the last two Mission: Impossible movies — has a good moment or two as an avuncular but enigmatic advisor. As Henry’s kid sister, Thomasin McKenzie (of Leave No Trace and the upcoming JoJo Rabbit) is thoroughly charming. Lily-Rose Depp shows up for the final scenes as the French king’s daughter, and I’ve never seen anyone who looked this much like a computer composite of her parents (Johnny D., Vanessa Paradis). It’s freaky.
But in the freaky sweepstakes, no one comes near Robert Pattinson’s blond dauphin, his glam exhibitionism overwhelming Chalamet’s emo angst. Pattinson’s idea of a snotty Frenchman might owe a lot to John Cleese (“Your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries — now go away or I shall taunt you a second time!”), but few movies have needed that sort of intentional silliness as much. Falstaff provided much of the levity in Shakespeare’s original, but this Falstaff, when the dauphin delivers his flowery threats, ostentatiously yawns. In more ways than one, he’s a stick in the mud.