THE KING, UK/Hungary/Australia, 2019. Starring Timothee Chalamet, Joel Egerton, Ben Mendelsohn, Sean Harris, Dean-Charles Chapman, Lily-Rose Depp, Thomasin McKenzie, Tara Fitzgerald, Tom Glynn-Carney, Andrew Havill, Edward Ashley. Directed by David Michod. 140 minutes. Rated MA (Strong violence).
In looking back over English history, especially in the Middle Ages and Renaissance period, the title of The King could well be claimed by Henry V. He came to prominence during the Hundred Years War between England and France, invading France, defeating the French at Agincourt, uniting the kingdoms for a time. However, the union was not to last – and, Joan of Arc was soon to come leading the French troops and defeating the English.
Henry V was immortalised by Shakespeare – and brought to life on screen by both Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh.
However, in Shakespeare’s plays about Henry and his relationship with his father, Henry IV, there is a picture of a rather dissolute youth, Prince Hal, his seedy companions and the influence of Sir John Falstaff, large and bumbling, guide to the Prince and to be rejected by him as Hal became serious, took on responsibility, became Henry V.
The King is an ambitious film, written by the director, David Michod and the star, playing Falstaff with great panache, Joel Edgerton. The choice of an actor to play Henry V is quite interesting, perhaps unexpected, a rather gaunt young man, serious in appearance and manner, Timothee Chalamet who received an Oscar nomination for Call Me by Your Name. Ben Mendelsohn, who was most impressive as George VI in The Darkest Hour but who has played many larrikins offers an arresting cameo as Henry IV. Sean Harris is the adviser, William. Robert Pattinson, affecting a broken English accent, is the cynical and rather smug Dauphin.
Audiences who have no need to brush up their Shakespeare can be assured that this screenplay is literate, intelligent, echoes of the period but communicating to contemporary years. The writers offer an exhortatory speech by Henry on the eve of Agincourt, not once more unto the breach, but eloquent and stirring nonetheless.
The scenes of Prince Hal’s youth are brief, indicating the dissolute aspects, introducing Falstaff and his influence, enough for Henry IV to cut him off as heir. Throughout the film we have the opportunity to puzzle about how Hal made the change to the responsible and regal Henry, a skilful warrior, merciless in his killing, gaining the respect of his advisers and soldiers who initially are wary of him.
The bulk of the film takes place with the invasion of France, the siege of an imposing castle, an encounter with the Dauphin and defying him, and the detail of the battle of Agincourt, the strategies, to trap the French knights and their horses in muddy ground, hand-to-hand combat, even a scene where the Dauphin wants to fight Henry but is humiliated, cumbersome and unable to stand, in the mud. The sequences, staged in Hungary where the film was shot, bring home the harshness and brutality of close encounter warfare.
But, as with Shakespeare, the film does not end in battle and triumph but in the restoration of order, the uniting of France and England with Henry’s marriage to the daughter of the French King (Lily Rose Depp), and unmasking of traitors, peace for a time.
The King is an impressive excursion into history.
Netflix Released October 10th
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.