Film review: The King

You’re the eldest son of a king you despise, you hate the politics of the day, and all you want is peace amongst men. How do you end up a battle lord whose main claim to glory is a massive military victory — that might turn out to be not exactly as it seemed? Netflix’s new film The King gives us its version of Henry V in The King, a well-made film with a devastating late punch, but only for those who make it through the incessantly morose first two hours.

As we have come to expect from Netflix, The King is a well-made, well-financed film, and it has much to recommend it. The highlight of the film is its Agincourt battle scene, which follows history fairly well and captures the horror of the devastating defeat for the French. When the cameras get outside, the cinematography is excellent. The story has good tension in it, although it varies greatly from history, and the pace is kept up well enough to keep viewer interest in the challenging environment of home theater.

** Spoilers ahead **

With that said, The King has its troubles as well, and they start with its two biggest stars. Timothée Chalamet is a clearly talented actor, but in this film he spends 95% with the same expression on his face. He’s a glum and haunted dissipated playboy. He’s a glum and haunted prince. He’s a glum and haunted reformer king, aaaaand he’s a glum and haunted battle lord and hero-king, too. He’s even glum and haunted in a brief sexual encounter, so much so that he bails out. Chalamet’s Henry V has no élan, no charisma, no evident qualities that would rally men to his side in a fight to the death other than primogeniture.

On the other extreme, Robert Pattinson’s Dauphin is almost comic relief. The man who would eventually take the throne with the help of Joan of Arc comes across as a sneering idiot, complete with French-accented English that comes closer to Holy Grail than Harfleur. One almost expected an elderberry reference in the series of personal insults Pattinson heaps on Chalamet in their scenes together, to which Chalamet is permitted no greater reaction than to get a bit more glum and haunted.

Thus it falls to Joel Edgerton to keep an emotional connection with the audience for nearly all of The King. Edgerton plays a character right out of Shakespeare’s Henry V of John Falstaff, a larger-than-life character in more ways than one. He is the only character permitted to show any joy at all or to be seen enjoying dissipation in the slightest, which lightens the load for the audience. Edgerton does a masterful job in this role and is worth watching the film for his performance alone.

** Big spoilers ahead **

The story itself has its issues as well. It borrows from the Shakespearean drama, whose historical accuracy is already a bit suspect, and adds in even more innovations. Henry V had his issues with his father but participated in his rule for years before ascending to the throne. England and France had engaged in The Hundred Years War for, well, many years before Agincourt, and far from being a reluctant imperial king, Henry fought a second campaign major in France afterward to establish the Plantagenet claim to the French crown. And it almost worked; the peace treaty shown (Troyes) near the end of The King came at the end of that second campaign, not Agincourt, as did his marriage to Catherine of Valois. If he hadn’t suddenly died in a siege two years later at the age of 36, Henry V would have united the two kingdoms after Charles VI’s death two months after his, at least for a while. And needless to say, the Dauphin wasn’t at Agincourt and certainly wasn’t killed there.

With all that said, it’s usually a mistake to read too much into historical inaccuracy in film. These are not documentaries, but dramatizations of characters and events to draw other lessons and messages. The exchange, though, should give viewers characters and events at least as compelling as history does — and The King doesn’t quite succeed, although it does come close, especially in its final twenty minutes.

A scene with Catherine (Lily-Rose Depp) turns the entire story on its head and calls into question everything Henry knows. This transforms a rather mundane reimagining of Henry V’s life into a rumination on the nature of leadership and governance, the costs of “greatness,” and the folly of trust. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t square a contradiction within the contradiction this presents, but the question itself can never be fully answered, as Henry realizes — and this lends more purpose to the preceding two hours of The King than it promised to that point.

On a Hot Air scale designed for streaming-service offerings, The King gets a 3, mainly for Agincourt, Edgerton’s excellent performance, and that last twenty minutes:

  • 5 – Sign up to access it
  • 4 – Build your evening around it
  • 3 – Worth a watch but don’t prioritize it
  • 2 – Only if there’s nothing else on
  • 1 – Avoid at all costs

The King is rated R for very realistic violence, including graphic battle scenes and a beheading that is presented very, very realistically. (Has anyone seen Stephen Fewell lately, by the way?) It’s not for younger teenagers, and it might be too dull for older teenagers, too.