Movie Review

‘The King’ revisits Shakespeare’s favorite young monarch

Timothée Chalamet portrays Henry V in “The King.”
Timothée Chalamet portrays Henry V in “The King.”

It’s an endearing fact of our cultural moment that the reigning romantic idol for a lot of women under 25 (and not a few men) is Timothée Chalamet. He’s Harry Styles with depth, Daniel Day-Lewis as a zygote, a one-man boy band who’s the social media equivalent of your mother’s David Cassidy poster but with brains and soul. When his name comes up in the classes I teach, a frisson of delight travels across the room like ripples on a pond. Who knows how long it will last? For now, he’s it.

“The King” goes a long way to explaining why. A bracing, highly enjoyable mix of medieval intrigue and epic action that after arriving in theaters hits Netflix on Nov. 1, it stars Chalamet as emo Henry V, an adolescent brooder who ascends the English throne only to discover — to the shock of many, including himself — that he’s a natural leader. The movie surrounds the actor with a scrum of characters played by some of the finest scene-stealers in Christendom, but make no mistake — Chalamet is the star. I brought a young Chalamaniac on the Globe staff with me to the screening, and we both sighed happily for the film’s two-plus hours, she for her boy king and me at all the pop-history pageantry that’s saved from self-seriousness (mostly) by the pleasures of craft.

The director is David Michôd, who wrote the screenplay with Joel Edgerton; the two are part of a cadre of pals from Australia who have made good in Hollywood, Michôd with the 2010 crime thriller “Animal Kingdom,” and Edgerton as a multi-talented supporting actor, writer, and director. What they’ve written ain’t Shakespeare, nor does it try to be, and if “The King” lacks the formal brilliance of Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film classic or the muscular dash of Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 version, neither is it a piece of over-digitized codswallop like some recent king movies that would be blockbusters.


Prince Hal is first met mid-hangover after a night of rollicking with the aging bad-boy knight Sir John Falstaff (Edgerton). He has exiled himself from the royal court and a father, Henry IV (creepy Ben Mendelsohn), who is ailing and paranoid, presiding over a country pulling itself to pieces. After an entr’acte involving the prince’s unlucky brother (Dean-Charles Chapman) and the unluckier Harry Percy, a.k.a. Hotspur (Tom Glynn-Carney), the old king exhales his last and the new king takes the crown. He looks like a dyspeptic mall-rat — or whatever the 15th-century equivalent of a mall is — but there’s a coldness in those bleak, blue eyes that see everything.

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The first half of “The King” is a jostle for power, with plotting nobles, French assassins, a crafty adviser in William Gascoigne (Sean Harris of the recent “Mission: Impossible” movies, doing excellent work here), and a taunting present from across the Channel: a ball for the royal boy to play with. Tragically, the script elects to omit my all-time favorite line from Shakespeare: “Tennis balls, my liege — a gift from the king of France.”

Once Henry makes the decision to invade that country, “The King” shifts into battle mode, with plenty of well-mounted action and a fair loss of dark energy. Michôd turns out to be a master tactician at staging the strategic clashes of armies: The Battle of Agincourt is laid out with crystal-clear geography and positioning before heading once more into the mud.

True, the St. Crispin’s Day speech suffers, with King Henry barely visible over the heads of his troops as he yawps angry encouragements. And the filmmakers’ decision to put Falstaff in the midst of the fight as a seasoned general and battlefield consul won’t sit well with faithful Shakespeareans or fans of Orson Welles, whose 1965 “Chimes at Midnight” remains the definitive Falstaffian mash-up.

But Michôd and Edgerton aren’t interested in fealty to the canon so much as the heady historical and visual sweep achieved by a well-made movie about a storied British king. They have a sense of humor — the lisping Archbishop of Canterbury played by Andrew Havill could be a shout-out to Peter Cook’s “mawwidge”-minded cleric in “The Princess Bride” — and they have a deep, broad cast, including Thomasin McKenzie of last year’s “Leave No Trace” as Henry’s little sister, Queen Philippa of Denmark, and Lily-Rose Depp — Johnny’s daughter — as a sharp, honest Catherine of Valois.


And, yes, here’s Robert Pattinson, fresh out of “The Lighthouse,” as a snotty glam-rocker of a French Dauphin, having a high time with the accent and scoffing at young Henry as if to say this is what a royal teen-idol is supposed to act like.

For all that — and despite the film’s overlength — it’s Chalamet’s vehicle, and Michôd swaddles his star in a filmmaking craftsmanship that at times is breathtaking. The camerawork (Adam Arkapaw) and period-appropriate lighting (overseen by Jamie Mills) evoke classical painting: Vermeer angles of sun, Renaissance gatherings of men, the pale, wracked body of the young king that calls to mind both Pre-Raphaelite beauties and Gothic martyrs.

The performance is internalized, at times nearly sulky, yet Chalamet — who captured headstrong sexual curiosity with ardor in “Call Me By Your Name” (2017) — draws the audience in and silences his advisers with a stillness that suggests a great, bereaved wisdom. Where did it come from? That’s the mystery and the magnetism of what the actor’s doing, and without it this Henry would merely be a Lancastrian twerp. Other Prince Hals have been played as young firebrands, but Chalamet’s is an old, old soul. He’s just one that’s suitable for framing and for abject fealty as necessary.


Directed by David Michôd. Written by Michôd and Joel Edgerton. Starring Timothée Chalamet, Edgerton, Robert Pattinson, Sean Harris. At Kendall Square; on Netflix starting Nov. 1. 140 minutes. R (strong violence and language)

Ty Burr can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.