The Prodigal Son Who Would Be King (Film Review: “The King”)

A somber retelling of Shakespeare’s Henriad plays, starring a brooding yet mesmerizing Timothée Chalamet

SnapShot Plot

If a film can simultaneously be literary, languorous and exquisitely brutal, then The King would be that film. Timothée Chalamet (with an apt middle name of Hal) stars as the wayward Prince Henry whose conflicted approach to his dying father’s throne is the dramatic problem at the center of this gorgeously filmed 2019 production. Loosely based on the collection of History plays by William Shakespeare, known as the “Henriad” (Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2 and Henry V), the central protagonist is Prince Henry, who later becomes Henry V and the epic hero of the entire play cycle.

When the firstborn son, Prince Henry – called Hal by his longtime friend and confidante John Falstaff – is summoned home to his dying father King Henry IV, he’s unfazed to learn that his younger brother, Thomas, instead of himself, will succeed as the next King of England. Ben Mendelsohn, always fascinating on screen, succeeds in conveying the moral and physical decrepitude of Henry IV, replete with the skin lesions attributed to the likely diagnoses of plague, leprosy, or syphilis that ultimately ended him.  Disgusted with the political infighting which has mired his father’s reign in endless wars (the latest with Scotland, as well as interminable strife with France), Hal is uninterested in assuming the throne and bearing the weight of the crown. Strange then, when Hal appears in the midst of a pivotal battle about to be fought by Thomas with the infamous Henry Percy (aka Hotspur). Hal takes over the conflict, in essence upstaging his brother, and as a result of that single move (as well as unfolding events soon after) Hal emerges as the rightful, sole and reluctant heir to the throne of England. With his ally Falstaff by his side (well played by Joel Edgerton), whose trusted counsel he’s relied upon to tell him the truth, Hal thinks he can negotiate the murky and nefarious palace intrigue which surrounds the throne. He vows not to be corrupted by war-baiting tactics, and pledges to introduce a new kind of leadership to England. But when all signs point to a treacherous plot by France, orchestrated by the Dauphin (in a cunning portrayal by Robert Pattinson), Hal finds himself leading an army into battle, with Falstaff as his marshal. Of course, this will be the historic Battle of Agincourt, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Parting Shot

Timothée Chalamet – despite a thin body type which challenges his believability as a warrior on the battlefield – succeeds in infusing Hal with a bravery, love of country and courage on the battlefield to win the loyalty of his men. Which makes this hero so interesting, so relevant to our sensibilities. Perhaps it’s his introspective brooding that feels so timely within our post modern mindset. Well known to audiences for his Best Actor nominated role in last year’s Call Me by Your Name, here is another example of the gravitas with which this young actor imbues his work.

The King is the kind of movie you must settle down for, to absorb both the beauty of the language and the brutality of the action sequences, made more visceral for the otherwise exacting pace of the plot. Directed by David Michôd (who co-wrote the script with Joel Edgerton) the film manages to capture not only Hal’s inner voice and that of Falstaff (here rendered more hero than clown), but too an epic sweep in the recounting of famous battles that defined the course of history for generations to come. And clearly, it serves as a reminder and a cautionary tale about the dangers to come when world leaders listen to the wrong voices whispering in their ear.

The King is presently streaming on Netflix.

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