I imagine modern playwrights have as much envy as admiration for William Shakespeare. Every dramatist since must look upon his body of work with as much veneration as jealousy. Here we are 400 years after the Bard of Avon’s death, and his plays continue to be studied, analyzed, interpreted and adapted.
“The King,” which debuted Nov. 1 on Netflix following a very limited theatrical release in select cities, is the latest cinematic endeavor based upon Shakespeare’s work. The new film, directed by David Michôd, features a script written by Michôd and Joel Edgerton. It is based upon the second tetralogy of Shakespeare's "Henriad" – or, more specifically, “Henry IV, Part 1,” “Henry IV, Part 2,” and “Henry V.” The plays revolve around Hal, or Prince Harry, who eventually ascends to the throne to become Henry V. He is the epic hero in this cycle of plays.
In “The King,” Timothée Chalamet tackles the lead role. He paints a vivid portrait of Shakespeare’s wayward prince, underscoring both his intemperance and his insubordination. Before Harry is forced to leave behind his beloved tavern world, he is equal parts rebellious and riotous. Chalamet brings that youthful self-indulgence to the forefront until the burden of his crown abruptly displaces it.
As king, Harry finds himself immersed in political intrigue and the chaos of continuing civil strife engendered by his father. He seeks to right his father’s wrongs, unite England and become the people’s king. His advisors, sensing his naiveté, advocate for their own objectives. Simultaneously, England seems to be drifting closer and closer to conflict with France.
“The King” may be based on Shakespeare’s plays, but the film introduces some critical new elements. While history books might not be able to corroborate all the devious machinations and Machiavellian conspiracies that Michôd and Edgerton have concocted, their imaginative retelling is plausible enough. Their revision offers an innovative spin that helps connect it to contemporary power brokers, from crooked corporate chiefs to foreign lobbyists.
At its heart, though, “The King” retains Shakespeare’s eloquent narrative of Prince Harry’s journey toward kingship and his struggle with the obligations of the crown. His transformation mirrors the cultural shift taking place in his world as Europe moves from the medieval period into the Renaissance.
Edgerton portrays Sir John Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s most beloved characters. Orson Welles, who played Falstaff in the 1965 film “Chimes at Midnight,” considered the character to be "Shakespeare's greatest creation." Edgerton gives a solid and often touching performance, emphasizing Falstaff’s sorrow as he watches his formerly carefree drinking buddy become encumbered with oppressive responsibilities.
Portraying the Dauphin — Louis, Duke of Guyenne, the eighth of 12 children of King Charles VI of France –—is Robert Pattinson. There is something oddly comic in his depiction of this unlikable character: from his overstated accent to his exasperating smirk, Pattinson certainly manages to embody the kind of egotist windbag that one could imagine getting under the skin of an inexperienced monarch. Although the historical figure was not present at the Battle of Agincourt, his counterpart in “The King” shows up on the field to face his foe in a brilliant climax to one of the muddiest combat scenes in recent memory.
Boasting gorgeous cinematography and strong performances from a talented cast, “The King” is both a coming-of-age tale and a riveting historical epic. Though its framework was inspired by Shakespeare’s plays and by historical events of the Lancastrian War, the third and final phase of the Anglo-French Hundred Years' War, Michôd and Edgerton have taken extensive artistic liberties with the narrative. Their interpretation is as bold and brutal as it is ambitious and enthralling.