Friday 4 October 2019

LFF 2019: The King

I may have reached the limit of my David Michôd fanboying. Animal Kingdom (2010) is still a scuzzily great crime drama, and The Rover (2014) is an underrated dystopian nightmare about where humanity is heading (to Hell, in a wheeled, overflowing commode). War Machine (2017), however, was a cultural atrocity; an actual abuse of my human rights. Nevertheless I stood by Michôd, and looked forward to The King: an adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry IV Parts III and Henry V. I like those plays a lot, and hoped Michôd might make as good a fist of them as his countryman Justin Kurzel did of Macbeth.

Needless to say: don't panic, Kenneth Branagh. As you were, Laurence Olivier's corpse. Michôd and co-writer Joel Edgerton have taken the bones of Shakespeare's plots but stripped them of his mesmerising language, to the point where they could justifiably argue that this isn't a Shakespeare adaptation at all. Their dialogue is prosaic and literal, which would almost be excusable in any non-Shakespeare-related film. But if you're going to unceremoniously dump lines like that one about the band of brothers, and that other one about once more unto the etc etc, well, you really need to come up with some decent alternatives. And having both Henrys IV and V say "fuck" doesn't count.

But let's give Michôd and Edgerton the benefit of the doubt and approach The King as a non-Shakespearey historical drama. How do they change the game? How do they add something new? How do they appeal to Generation Netflix, who are footing the budget? The answer lies in the willowy figure of Timothée Chalamet, a perfectly good actor whose ginormous fanbase is somehow as improbable as his cheekbones. Chalamet is our Hal, the rebellious prince who'd rather get royally cunted on a nightly basis with his pal-slash-tragic-father-figure Falstaff than assume the role he was literally born for. The King is already off to a wobbly start: Chalamet looks a little too clean-living for the debauchery we're meant to believe he's undertaking, and while Edgerton's not-unjustifiable retooling of Falstaff as an avuncular military tactician makes more sense than Shakespeare's sack-soaked old windbag, it deprives the character of much of his personality.
"Oh, you don't like my haircut? Well how about you get a HEADCUT? (off)"

Inevitably, Hal is required to step up and take the throne after an incident in which he heroically saves the lives of his hated father's soldiers but indirectly gets his brother (also hated) killed. Families, eh? Cuh. Now comes the interesting bit, but only if you're British: despite an indecorous past which clearly marks him out as entirely unsuitable for the role, Hal assumes the highest political office in the land, where he is advised by self-serving lickspittles. He immediately embarks on a potentially disastrous European venture driven by a public who are unreasonably fearful of foreigners; you can tell his heart's not in it but you can't argue with the will of the people, can you? At this point the allegories run dry, but I'm sure if we wait another week or two another one will become apparent.

So now lil' Timmy Chalamet is a beloved leader of men and a great warrior, and he is equally miscast as both. Sure, Hal is meant to be an unlikely king, but Chalamet is just a little too young, too slight and too pretty; his presence comes across as more of a marketing tool than a logical creative choice. He's not bad, he's just the wrong king - I'd happily believe him as Shakespeare's weak and naive Henry VI, and I'm sure he could sink his teeth into the dastardly doings of Richard III. What's more, Hal's crown puts so much pressure on his brain that where yesterday he would avoid war at all costs, today he's desperate to do what his father couldn't: beat the shit out of those cheese-eating surrender monkeys across the Channel in a big fuck-off war.

By this point the film has been trundling on for quite some time without much of any interest coming to pass, and it's been doing so with such painful earnestness that even Falstaff, the de facto comic relief, has barely cracked a smile. There has been a great deal of talking though, which is all well and good, but what we could really do with - to quote another King - is a little less conversation, a little more action.
"All zis aggravation ain't satisfactionin' moi"

And that's when Robert Pattinson appears to liven things up with his Tommy Wiseau laugh and his Inspector Clouseau accent. He's the Dauphin of France, the King's son, and The King's pantomime villain. Chalamet is visibly furious at Pattinson's attempts to steal the show from under him, and understandably declares war. The Battle of Agincourt is the film's only skirmish, which smacks of budgetary necessity, and while it's coherently shot and cut (which is more than can be said for most movie battles), it's exactly the same as every other medieval clash you've ever seen, right down to the slow motion brutality soundtracked by ethereal music. And then, as if to hammer the final nail into its own coffin, The King - which has so far been so po-faced it could pass for a Teletubby - opts for wildly misjudged slapstick, of all things, at a crucial moment.

In Michôd's defence, his film does look good: his camera adores Chalamet, as they all do, and he composes a beautiful night-time trebuchet attack on a French castle. Also his and Edgerton's deviation from what we must wankily refer to as "the text" allows him to ditch Hal's unbearable wooing of Kate, his newly acquired French missus, in favour of giving her a small but important last-reel role in a movie that's otherwise a near-total sausagefest. But it's not enough to erase the sheer unremarkableness of the preceding two hours, and the crucial underlying themes of destiny and family - along with my long-held stanning of David Michôd - are lost somewhere in the vasty fields of France.


  1. If they really wanted to distinguish themselves from Shakespeare, maybe go with the fact that hal was part-raised by richard ii, but once dad came back from exile, was a near full time soldier and the feckless bit is thought to be a myth? (Scar on the cheek was got at 14 in battle) Also, which brother did the film say he got killed? All his brothers outlived him. *history geek*

  2. Ha! Excellent knowledge, where were you when they wrote the script? Dead bro is Thomas, I think. Played by Tommen from Game Of Thrones, because he's the go-to ineffectual royal brother.