The phrase “war is bloody and soulless” can be heard twice in The King, a particular cinematic vision on the early life of Henry V, co-written by director David Michod (Animal Kingdom; The Rover) and actor Joel Edgerton (The Gift; The Rover), who sought inspiration in a group of history plays by Shakespeare. However, this decent yet not great effort, marked by a neo-noir ambiance and detached from the traditional Shakespearean routines, is less interested in showing the bloodshed on the battlefields, but rather inspecting what agitates the peace of an uncertain, inexperienced young king surrounded by artful advisers. Thus, introspection and concern mark the course of this darkly atmospheric account.
The prince of Wales, called Hal (Timothée Chalamet) by his friends, is in open conflict with the politics followed by his father, the dominant Henry IV of England (Ben Mendelsohn), and consumes his time drinking alongside Sir John Falstaff (Edgerton), a brave commander who also fell in disgrace after heroically battling for King Richard II. Uneasy, Hal takes action in assistance of his bland younger brother, Thomas (Dean-Charles Chapman), to whom the throne was promised by their dying father, and defeats the rebel Henry Percy (Tom Glynn-Carney) in a head-to-head armored dispute.
“…inspecting what agitates the peace of an uncertain, inexperienced young king surrounded by artful advisers.”
After Thomas and Henry IV have succumbed, Hal is crowned king of England. A short time later, he declares war to France, a country that, according to his counselors, has been provocative and disrespectful to him and his people. For this bold move, the king relies on Falstaff, trusting him more than anyone else in the kingdom. The latter’s risky tactic to defeat the more numerous French under the leadership of the arrogant Dauphin (Robert Pattinson), will reveal perspicacity.
Even not as striking as the previous unforgettable versions of Henry V by Laurence Olivier in 1944 and Kenneth Branagh in 1989, The King is rarely uninteresting and still resonates with a consistent structure, excellent production values, and competent performances. In truth, the 140 minutes never seemed extended to me, since Michod avoids wasting time with plot trivialities and goes straight to the point.
In the end, the shady palace intrigues, and tenebrous ambiances give place to a bright ray of light, infusing some hope in the heart of the victorious somber king.