“You must first draw them all in. All of them.”
From the very first shot, tracking across and pushing forward through yet another muddied wasteland of bodies pointlessly slaughtered in hopes of bolstering one kingdom’s strength over those within its reach, The King quickly establishes itself as a take on Anglo-Saxon drama with a flair for the now. If the film looks like a drab castle from the outside, then this opening – walking through a heavy door to a surprisingly lit and inviting foyer, and ultimately towards an expansive pig pen full of conflict – is an instantaneous and intentional update, showcasing how the hushed history of a wall can talk but also be circumvented by and improved upon with a modern layout. It’s classic dramaturgy driven by a colloquial, ambitious sense of colonialism, and The King may very well be the most overlooked movie of 2019. It’s a thoughtful, honest, effective film that shook me to my core. I’ve seen it twice. I know I’ll sit with it a few times more.
We first meet young Hal (Timothée Chalamet, the best actor of his generation) as a privileged highfalutin, the reluctant heir to Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn, whose decrepit health is made visible by way of his sweaty, plasticine skin) as he’s woken from a yet another drunken slumber. The sickly incumbent struggles to choose his successor: should it be the younger Thomas (Dean-Charles Chapman), a timid boy whose promise as a king seems to be undercut by the loose strength of his lackadaisical grip, or maybe this is Hal’s destiny. This slight framed Lothario glugs wine though, lays many women and revels in late nights segued into even longer mornings. When Hal enters the hall, with his hair a tossed mop and his wan skin ever so pale, he’s only preceded by his fetid stench. He may be royalty, but he looks and smells sulfuric. He’s a royal degenerate, an outcast destined to fill the footprints of heavy shoes. And despite his greatest intentions as he eventually and inevitably takes the thrown, his carefully groomed and vulnerable ego ultimately becomes his Achilles heel by the time the credits close. Everything comes full circle.
Playing babysitter to Hal is the older friend John Falstaff (Joel Edgerton, brilliant in the role and as director David Michôd’s co-writer), a fictional character from Shakespeare’s Henriad who once waged war on battle fields but now fights the demons of a desolate, drunken mind in the slop filled streets of Eastcheap. John pleads with Hal to make amends with his dwindling father, assuring him that the regret of such a festering wound might never be precisely sutured or painfully cauterized. Later on, as the hungover royal sleeps dressed in black, Chief Justice William (Sean Harris) pleads with the young usurper to visit his dying father. Hal says, “hmm, that hook has lost its worm,” and only upon being told that his brother has been killed in battle – to little shock or awe – is Hal caught and pulled awake. He should be king. He must. He is.
Featuring an incredibly versatile ensemble (especially a joyously playful performance from Robert Pattinson as the inept Dauphin of France), The King bears all the hallmarks of your typically stodgy period piece with the ornate finishes to feel distinctively tied to the here and the now. It’s a film about men who, for no reason or another, are anointed as holy kings in global games of chess yet who are easily played by the pawns in their presence. It’s a story about institutional change for the better, and how something as simple as a gifted ball can shift one’s agenda towards that of hate driven by hubris. And it is sadly another example throughout history of how one man’s aim can be altered without his knowing, shooting at the head for the humane kill when the sight has been unknowingly altered to puncture the heart, a quality only further emphasized by Nicholas Britell’s sweeping and sublime score which ranks among the year’s very best.
Not since Aleksei German’s utterly brilliant and far more revolting film Hard to Be a God – a picture that literally took me three days to finish because it’s so off-putting yet so entirely engrossing – have I seen a contemporary picture come close to capturing the same visual aesthetic. And while German’s immaculate epic lumbers around with a voyeuristic, Darwinist approach and an intentionally repulsive primitiveness, David Michôd and his editor Peter Sciberras and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (who’s becoming quite the master of marrying style with story) allowed this film not just enough room to breathe, but to inhale and to exhale in ways that simply feel authentic. It’s such a human picture, exploring the great costs of seemingly simple actions. How those in power try to amend their mistakes – fighting fire with fire – through wanton acts of defiance only until they’re overmatched by a partner with a more calm and collected sense of reasoning. For the first time in a while, I’m grateful Netflix footed the bill for a film of this sheer magnitude. Long live – or should I say stream – The King.
“Family consumes us.”
Rating: 4.5 out of 5