The King Turns Shakespeare’s Henriad Into the Tragedy of the Obama Years

As Henry V, Timothée Chalamet brings change that’s hard to believe in.

Timothée Chalamet in The King.
Timothée Chalamet in The King. Netflix

Let’s get this out of the way: The King, the new film from writer-director David Michôd and co-writer Joel Edgerton, tells the story of the wayward Prince Hal becoming the beloved warrior-king Henry V without using a word of Shakespeare. Yes, the film (which comes out in a limited theatrical release on Oct. 11 and then on Netflix on Nov. 1) is based on Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part 2; and Henry V, which, together with the earlier Richard II, form what Shakespeareans grandly call The Henriad—but it rejiggers important plot incidents and frequently turns them on their head. If you’re a Shakespeare purist, you might shudder with horror when Hal (Timothée Chalamet) and Hotspur (Tom Glynn-Carney) settle their differences in a single combat rather than at the Battle of Shrewsbury, or find it odd that Hal never reconciles with his father, King Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn). But Michôd and Edgerton are only treating Shakespeare the way he treated his own sources, borrowing liberally while changing anything that doesn’t suit their purposes. In writing The Henriad, Shakespeare shifted ages of characters, compressed the chronology of events, invented scenes, and added to the proceedings one of his most famous characters, Sir John Falstaff.

A character named Sir John Falstaff appears in The King, played by Edgerton himself, but, while he shares a name with one of the greatest characters ever written, the similarities pretty much stop there. Shakespeare’s Falstaff is a master of verbal invention, whose infinite self-knowledge keeps him always compelling even as he is a coward, a drunkard, and a thief. He’s a boisterous presence, teeming with a life that has been squeezed out of King Henry’s court. Falstaff’s ability to deconstruct the values of his era and turn them inside out with hilarious logic—he says of honor, “Who hath it? He that died on Wednesday”—made him so popular in his own era that, after Shakespeare killed him off in Henry V, he brought him back in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

None of this sounds like the kind of character at which Joel Edgerton, one of our humblest and most subtle actors, would excel. Edgerton’s best work to date has come in lower-budget films like Loving and The Gift, films with lots of space for us to see how much detail there is in his quietness. Perhaps due to this, the Falstaff he has written himself is not a coward, or much of a drunk, or much of a clown. He has no verbal dexterity—he’s even chided at one point for his laconic nature. Instead, he is the moral compass of the film and, in a shift that can’t help but seem like egomania on the part of his creator, a valiant warrior and tactical genius.

There’s no place for Shakespeare’s Falstaff in this film because Michôd and Edgerton have a different story they want to tell about politics and the way political leaders create legitimacy. In The Henriad, King Henry IV cannot maintain stability or legitimacy because in Richard II, he has usurped the throne from its rightful occupant, even though doing so was necessary for the preservation of the rule of law in England. The two parts of Henry IV are about many things, but their real story is about Prince Hal’s political education. From Hotspur, he learns the power of honor, and the foolishness of making it your lodestar. From Falstaff, he learns how words can justify anything, and to always see around the corners in any situation. From his father, he learns the vital importance of performance to leadership. He also learns, on his father’s deathbed, that if he wants to secure his rule, he should make up a pretext for attacking a foreign country:

Thou art not firm enough, since griefs are green;

And all my friends, which thou must make thy friends,

Have but their stings and teeth newly ta’en out;

… Therefore, my Harry,

Be it thy course to busy giddy minds

With foreign quarrels; that action, hence borne out,

May waste the memory of the former days.

In Henry V, Hal does exactly that. He creates the lasting stability that eluded his father through an unnecessary war with France. The action of the play is one of conquest. Whether by words or by arms, Hal sets about conquering the church, the court, his soldiers, a rival foreign power, and a new wife. Drawing from Machiavelli’s The Prince, the Hal of Shakespeare’s Henriad is a canny manipulator—he is the tactical genius—but also somehow all surface. We get few soliloquies from the character, and what we often find when we look at them is quite unpleasant. Here, for example, is Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part 1, explaining to the audience that he spends so much time with Falstaff and crew so that:

[W]hen this loose behavior I throw off

And pay the debt I never promised,

By how much better than my word I am,

By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;

And like bright metal on a sullen ground,

My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,

Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes

Than that which hath no foil to set it off.

Hal executes this plan to play the sinner so that he can get more credit for reforming perfectly. As soon as his father dies, Hal exiles Falstaff and begins his ascension toward historic greatness. As king, Hal is a kind of faceless man. He wears whatever version of himself he needs to in order to win whatever situation he is in. Not for nothing is he able to disguise himself and walk among his men or to inspire them to sacrifice themselves using some of Shakespeare’s most stirring rhetoric.

If this doesn’t sound like the Henry V you remember from the movies, it’s because Sir Laurence Olivier’s version of Henry V cemented a different version of the character in the popular consciousness. A work of patriotic propaganda filmed and released during World War II, Olivier’s Henry V is missing the most unpleasant aspects of its monarch. Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V—which is as much about Branagh claiming the crown from Olivier as it is about Hal claiming the crown from his father—follows in these footsteps.

Perhaps trying—like Shakespeare—to throw a bit of cold water on our simplistic view of Hal, The King is a deeply cynical film, but its cynicism is quite different from The Henriad’s. Shakespeare’s vision of power was influenced by Machiavelli. Michôd and Edgerton’s vision of power comes straight out of ’70s paranoid cinema. This is a movie where men of unclear motives whisper to each other in dimly lit rooms, where no one knows whom to trust, and where a war might be built on lies. Chalamet’s Hal is, as one character puts it, a “young, vain, foolish boy. So easily riled. So easily beguiled.” He’s a manchild adrift in a sea of intrigue, guided by the same advisers who whispered into the ear of a father he despised. All he wants is to bring peace and security to the land through good governance, but he finds himself dragged into international conflict anyway. With his belief that his own charisma can transform a nation, his daddy issues, his misspent youth, and his espoused pacifism that curdles into a pragmatism that permits war crimes, this is a Prince Hal as Barack Obama. The tragedy of The King is the tragedy of the Obama years, as the hope for change we could believe in becomes too often a continuity with the policies of previous rulers.

Michôd and Edgerton’s rearranging of Shakespeare to dramatize this different, updated form of political cynicism is the most interesting thing about the film. Sadly, there’s little else of interest. For all the care taken to blow our minds with radically reconfigured characters, The King feels oddly anonymous, as if made from a checklist of how to shoot a prestige Middle Ages drama or a midseason episode of Game of Thrones. The most interesting things to look at in it are the exquisite faces of the young men in its cast. If a scene takes place outside, the colors have been washed out of it; if it takes place inside, candles and fireplaces shroud everything in shifting shadows. The actors either whisper-growl or, when the stakes are really high, bellow an F-bomb or two to reveal their seriousness. Even Nicholas Britell (Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk) turns in one of his most indifferent scores.

Once the film gets to France, a sense of style begins to creep in. Britell busts out a choir to boom over the Zimmer-esque strings that have droned solemnly throughout the rest of the film. Robert Pattinson, playing the foppish Dauphin, struts into The King like he’s just walked off the set of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. It’s all wrong for a project this self-serious, but seeing someone actually make an interpretive choice is a breath of fresh air. The Battle of Agincourt is a master class in how to film melee combat. Using clear spatial relationships, and punctuating long (but not overly showy) takes with mud-flecked quicker cuts, Michôd ensures we feel the ugliness and chaos of war without getting lost.

But all of this is too little too late, and it can’t compensate for a lead performance from Chalamet that is mostly scowls and pouting. No matter what version of Henry V you’re telling, his personal charisma will become the story’s subject. The King takes Chalamet’s charisma for granted, letting him lean into a self-pity so profound that you wonder why Falstaff—or anyone else—would follow him at all. Shakespeare’s Hal could “drink with any tinker in his own language.” This Hal can only mumble resentfully in one language. It’s the language of “serious” male cinema in the year 2019, where seething resentment gives forth to bursts of violence. In deciding to speak this language instead of Shakespeare’s, Michôd has taken two of the Bard’s immortal geniuses, the drunkard Falstaff and his protégé, the Prince, and shrunk them down to the size of everyday people.