‘The King’ Entertains Even as it Abandons History

by Warren Cantrell on November 6, 2019

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Minor Rock Fist Up]

**EDITOR’S NOTE: This review was delayed due to our resident historian, Warren Cantrell, requiring oxygen and a steady application of sedatives following his screening of the picture.**

A historical epic with little regard for history, The King is nonetheless an engaging medieval yarn stocked with beautiful people and quirky haircuts. The story of Henry V (Timothée Chalamet) during his ascension to the throne and subsequent invasion of France, the film is very much a character study about a young man casting off the rebellious cloak of adolescence so as to seize his and his country’s destiny. Numerous, massive deviations from the historical record cast a shadow over the whole effort, however, and while it adds up to a fun little flick, the deployment of the real-life characters in The King boggles the mind.

Set in England circa 1413, The King introduces the audience to a realm at war with itself. Internal strife largely defines the reign of the old and ailing Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn), whose army is fending off Scottish rebels as well as factions within his own government. The king’s oldest son, Hal (Chalamet), has unspoken beef with his dad, and makes it clear that he has no interest in the crown: preferring instead to drink and whore around with his buddy, Falstaff (Joel Edgerton). And while Henry IV is initially receptive to the idea of his eldest son’s abdication, events transpire that force Hal to become Henry V.

Much of the friction between Hal and his father grows out of the latter’s draconian domestic policies, which the new king is quick to correct. Matters abroad aren’t as easily mended, however, as many of Hal’s advisors are pushing their new regent towards a confrontation with France, whose own king seems to be spoiling for a fight. During these early days of Hal’s reign, he is mentored by England’s Chief Justice, William Gascoigne (Sean Harris), and while William’s counsel has a maturing effect on the young ruler, Hal begins to feel the heavy burden of his crown, and the loneliness it engenders. This leads him back to Falstaff, who Hal pulls out of a drunken stupor and elevates to a position in his court as one of his most trusted advisers.  

As The King proceeds, Hal must balance his good intentions and aspirations for reform against the hard political realities of running a global empire. Chalamet is superb as the reluctant king for whom power is a means to an end, and not an end in and of itself. As a casting choice, it truly is inspired, for The King relies on Hal’s teenage-like reluctance to do something productive with his life to sell the slow transformation into one of England’s most legendary monarchs. Chalamet comes into the film with an established too-cool-for-school aura that sets him up perfectly for the first act, and plays into the same underestimation as a leader/warrior that his character endures early on.

But then there’s the “history” of all of this (historians: consider this a trigger warning). The King employs a “pick and choose” method when dealing with the historical text, using figures from this time period like a coach dipping into his or her bench. Sure, most of these people were around for the roughly two-year period featured in the film, but how they are deployed in the story bears little resemblance to what is generally agreed upon by historians. Henry’s ascension to the throne (and his brother Thomas’ place in that) is pretty much a fiction, as is the Dauphin’s (Robert Pattinson) entire role in the film. Speaking of inventions out of whole cloth, however, nothing approaches the audacity of setting William Gascoigne not just in the court of Henry V, but in the key role as one of the king’s closest advisors (in real life, Gascoigne resigned his post not long after Henry V’s coronation).

These deviations don’t detract from the overall enjoyment of the narrative, which clicks along nicely, but it forces one to wonder why this film hews to any historical record at all. Why not just make up a story that hits all of these beats and set it in a fictional realm? The answer seems clear: the filmmakers obviously wanted to give medieval English historians a stroke, and if The King succeeds in nothing else, it will likely be this dubious accomplishment. It won’t matter much to these scholars that the story presented in this movie is interesting, well-paced, and easily applicable to any number of prodigal son scenarios throughout time, making the story universal across cultural lines.

Because it is indeed all of those things, and stocked with a host of world-class actors and costume/production designs that blow the doors off most other historical epics. Director David Michôd, who co-wrote the script with Edgerton, does a fine job pushing the story forward by way of Hal’s maturation, which is indeed the narrative compass of the picture. Though Michôd struggles a bit with his staging of the action near the climax (he has difficulty establishing a greater sense of place and time on the battlefield), he lands the emotional and character beats that tie everything together.

An interesting little fiction that takes some very real people and contorts their history for ends that might as well place it in the Game of Thrones universe, The King is nevertheless an engaging character study. Bolstered by its lead performance and some classic palace intrigue drama, the film manages to overcome numerous historical deviations to reimagine one of England’s most famous rulers. And while it bears only a passing resemblance to history, Henry V and his hair never looked so good (or emo). Shakespeare need not worry, however, for The Bard’s play (and Branagh’s superb 1989 adaptation of the same) will almost certainly remain “king” amongst Henry V heads.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and The Playlist. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing.

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