2019 Film Fest 919: In fairly short order, Timothée Chalamet has become one of the hottest young actors in the industry. Any filmmaker would want to work with him. At the same time, with so many opportunities, looking towards what old fashioned Hollywood stars used to pursue makes sense for Chalamet. So, his starring role in “The King” is very much a fit. While the movie doesn’t always rise to the level of his performance, watching Chalamet go all-in on a William Shakespeare-type story is largely engaging. With a little more tightening, this film could have been a really strong royal epic. Playing here in Chapel Hill at Film Fest 919 as it hits select theaters, before a home next month on Netflix, this is a missed opportunity.
“The King” sees filmmaker David Michôd again pairing with Joel Edgerton for an ambitious tale. Their first attempt at an epic period piece sadly loses most of their idiosyncrasies in the effort. With the exception of a scene or two, this shows no signs of their specific voices. The film could have been written by anybody, and that’s a shame. With stock material like this, creative and different voices are essential. That never fully comes across here.
King Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn) is dying. The longtime ruler is sick, adding to the many issues that the kingdom faces. A passing of the torch to his son is to be expected, however, father and son are estranged. Prince Hal (Chalamet), has completely turned his back on the royal way of life, opting to live and party among the people. Spending his days with a close friend and former knight Sir John Falstaff (Edgerton), calling him a reluctant heir would be generous. Henry IV even makes alternative plans for his successor. Those fail in short order, leaving Hal with no choice but to assume the mantle he spent his whole life trying to avoid.
Now wearing the crown, Hal initially seeks to remain true to his values. William (Sean Harris) advises him, though Hal brings John Falstaff with him to the palace, needing a trusted ear. Slowly though, the weight of being king weighs on him, leading him astray from his values. A reported attempt on his life brings him into conflict with the French, where The Dauphin of France (Robert Pattinson), seemingly the inverse of Hal in every way, is all too eager to engage in warfare. As John attempts to remind Hal of his true nature, a bloody battle looms as an inevitability. All too quickly, the son has become the father.
Timothée Chalamet is clearly relishing the chance to do a Shakespeare-like role. Though not as stunning as his Oscar-nominated turn in “Call Me By Your Name,” this is undeniably committed work. Chalamet is at his best in the first and third acts, both as the wayward prince, and then as the determined ruler. When he’s first settling into the crown, it’s not as powerful a portrayal. By the time the character steps up, so too does the actor. In particular, the final scenes are Chalamet at his best.
The rest of the cast, with one exception, is not nearly as memorable. Joel Edgerton and Sean Harris are solid, but their parts are the sort we’ve seen dozens of times before in similar movies. Robert Pattinson, on the other hand, is chewing the scenery and having a ball, sporting a ridiculous French accent. Playing the part almost as if he’s a debauched vampire, he’s clearly having fun. The same can’t be said for other supporting players, including the aforementioned Ben Mendelsohn, but also Dean-Charles Chapman, Lily-Rose Depp, Thomason McKenzie, and more. They’re all vastly underserved by the material, though Depp gets one climactic scene to shine in.
Director/co-writer Michôd has all the tools at his disposal to make “The King” really stand out. However, the screenplay he penned with Egerton doesn’t quite sing. Too much of it easy to see mapped out in advance, while Michôd’s direction can’t consistently add style to it. His pacing is sluggish, only enlivened by the occasional burst of humor. Mostly though, this is a dour affair. The climactic battle sequence is terrific, though overall the cinematography by Adam Arkapaw recalls his superior work on “Macbeth.” Nicholas Britell contributes another strong score to his impressive resume, but none of these papers over the poor pacing and only sporadic originality on display.
Netflix is ultimately the right home for “The King.” Festivals, including here at Film Fest 919, do the movie no favors, as it easily is overshadowed by superior fare. While it’s too uneven to recommend, the performances by Timothée Chalamet and Robert Pattinson make the film worth catching at some point on the streaming service. Especially if you’re a fan of one of the actors, they’re doing very interesting work. The project surrounding them? Not so much.
“The King” screens at Film Fest 919 on Friday, Oct. 11 at 8:50 pm, and Sunday, Oct. 13 at 4:20 pm.
“The King” is distributed by Netflix and will be released in select theaters on Oct. 11 before streaming on Nov. 1.