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It feels wrong to compare a historical medieval epic to The Lord of the Rings trilogy. One is mired in the murky details of the past. The other is beholden to the basic swords and sorcery concept its adaptations would eventually refine it into. Nevertheless, David Michod’s The King is similar to The Lord of the Rings films specifically The Two Towers. It feels like it takes place in the middle of a trilogy rather than being its own standalone piece. Still, even with all its grim-dark flair and gravelly acting The King just doesn’t have enough of anything to make up for poor structure, story and pacing.
Hal (Timothée Chalamet) is an errant Prince, the son of King Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn), more than willing to shirk his duties in favour of wine and women. After events conspire to place Hal on the throne as King Henry V, he finds himself with few trustworthy retainers outside of his loyal advisor Falstaff (Joel Edgerton). As England goes to war with France Henry must contend with the likes of the bloodthirsty Dauphin (Robert Pattinson) and his own treacherous Chief Justice William Gascoigne (Sean Harris).
It’s hard to state how little we need The King. With Game of Thrones over, studios will be climbing over each other to snap up the next great medieval drama. The King is not it, not because it’s poorly acted or because its production design is lacking but because it has so little to say. Michod and Edgerton’s script – adapted from Shakespeare’s King Henry plays – brings nothing new to the table. There are vague platitudes about the cost of war, the burden of leadership and the violence we commit to ensure our position as ruler as well as our place in history. The King offers all this up rather well but it never says anything that hasn’t been said before in a more gripping, emotional fashion.
Where The King does grip is in its action. An early film duel between Henry and Percy Hotspur (Tom Glynn-Carney) sets the tone for the swordfights, charges and melees to come. In full plate armour they batter at each and the fight gradually evolves into more modern MMA than it does medieval combat.
The film’s final fight brings this muddy, bloody brawling to its logical conclusion with a battle scene that draws a great deal of inspiration from Game of Thrones’ The Battle of The Bastards. Still it all becomes a bit much after Chalamet dashes out the fifth foot soldier’s brains in a melee that seems to last forever. It’s only at the end of the second act during the fiery bombardment of a French castle that The King comes close to realising its message. The castle burns against a twilit sky and the men and their King watch it, the flickering flames illuminating their faces in portraits of fear, regret and despair.
Chalamet is perfectly poised to exude both anguished vulnerability and savage aggression as the despairing King. It is Pattinson as the maniacal Dauphin however that provides the most memorable performance. He bites into his French accent like it’s an especially good serving of escargot and his pale, vampiric face framed by honey-gold locks is exactly what I imagine an insane, blue-blooded prince to look like. It’s a shame we see so little of Mendelsohn as Sean Harris’ Gascoigne is too easily telegraphed thanks to Harris’ slithery, snake-tongued voice and the film could have used a little unpredictability in the mix.
The King feels like it needs a prequel about Mendelsohn’s King Henry IV as well as a sequel about King Henry V’s eventual downfall. As viewers we’re caught in the middle of a young man’s story with no proper beginning or ending. For all the performers’ clenched teeth, conspirational whispering and furrowed brows they can’t save the film from its unfortunate structure. For all it’s ornate production design and a veritable galaxy of stars it just doesn’t feel worthy of ruling anything.