LFF 2019 ‘The King’ Review: Shakes up the Shakespeare

Hal (Timothee Chalamet) is the eldest son of the king of England (Ben Mendelson). He hates his father, the king, and spends his days drinking and revelling with his close friend John Fallstaff. However as his father falls ill and tensions gather around the borders of his unwanted kingdom, Hal must decide what manner of King he shall be and if he can trust his advisors.

The King borrows from Shakespeare’s Henriad and English History but is ultimately a work of fantasy. It is, of course, entitled to tell it’s own story with these characters but the filmmakers must expect comparisons to the great work. The film lacks Shakespeare’s comedy and also reduces the characters somewhat. Most notably Falstaff is only initially the loveable but tragic fool before becoming more the stoic warrior. He is ably played by Joel Edgerton but his character is far less interesting for the change.

This is a very muted epic with moments of flamboyance. The odd casual execution or campy douphin livens up an otherwise fairly straight faced historical epic in which supply lines and troop deployment are key talking points. The aesthetic is gritty and the atmosphere foreboding.

Chalamet plays an anguished king who seems destined to become as paranoid as his father. The loneliness of the crown becomes a key motif, a narrative robbed of it’s most dramatic moment in which he turns his back on his adolescent friend. What’s interesting here is Hal’s descent into paranoia and potential despotism. Chalamet occasionally slips up with the accent but feels authentic in the role. As a powerful figure with a serious distaste for the crown he is compelling.

Not all performances are quite so plausible. Robert Pattinson is inexplicably cast as the young and reckless dauphin. His accent caused much laughter in my screening. He has the appearance of an ailing Kurt Cobaine and has a habit of lunging into frame like a vampire. He’s clearly meant to be a humorous figure, the very opposite of our heroic, stoic king.

The battle sequences are clearly influenced by Miguel Sapochnik’s work on Game of Thrones, including a shot lifted directly from the Battle of the Bastards. The sequences are visceral and exciting without losing visual clarity. A duel fought near the start of the film communicates the weight of the impact and the experience of being inside these huge suits of armour.

The King is an entertaining historical epic but falls far short of the nobility of it’s source material. We’re offered little new insight into these characters, but in the absence of any more Game of Thrones it’s fun to see some large men in shiny armour hit each other with swords.

Three Stars

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