“The King” is a film full of surprises: It’s a saga that strays both from history and from Shakespeare in its tale of power and betrayal; it brilliantly casts Timothée Chalamet against type to portray a young man who has weighty responsibilities suddenly thrust upon him; and it’s a smart and taut bit of storytelling from David Michôd, whose previous feature “War Machine” was neither of those things. (That film’s star, Brad Pitt, is a producer of “The King” via his Plan B shingle.)
How well this moody (and moodily-lit) story will translate to Netflix is anyone’s guess — watch it in a dark room for full effect — but on any-sized screen, it’s a historical piece that defies expectation and offers both the thrills of battle and a thoughtful critique of war and imperialism.
Structurally, this is a story you know from “Henry IV, Part 2” and “Henry V” (or “Chimes at Midnight” or “My Own Private Idaho”). Prince Hal (Chalamet) lives a life of hedonism, shunning his responsibilities to his father, King Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn), who has decided to make Hal’s petulant younger brother, Thomas (Dean-Charles Chapman, “Game of Thrones”), heir to the throne. But after Hal embarrasses Thomas by defeating Percy Hotspur (Tom Glynn-Carney, “Tolkien”) in man-to-man combat — followed by Thomas’ death on the battlefield in Wales — Hal becomes Henry V, and almost immediately finds himself embroiled in a war with France.
Michôd accentuates Chalamet’s physicality in the early sections of the film to depict him as someone who has no business assuming the throne; he’s frequently seen shirtless, with a gangly slenderness that makes him seem not imposing in the slightest. (When Henry faces Hotspur, he throws on a chain-mail gorget that Chalamet wears like a Rei Kawakubo shrug on a Milan catwalk.)
But as the film proceeds, Chalamet’s Henry does acquire stature and gravitas (even with the period-appropriate bowl haircut), and by the time he is leading his troops into the Battle of Agincourt — without a St. Crispin’s Day speech, but with a rousing pep talk nonetheless — the actor has made us believe in this wastrel’s transformation. It’s a metamorphosis that takes place at a different pacing than the one in “Henry IV, Part 2,” at least partially because this film carries over the character of John Falstaff — a Shakespearean creation, although based on several real people — but gives him more of an even break than the Bard did. Falstaff is played here by Joel Edgerton, who co-wrote with Michôd.
Edgerton, incidentally, has never been looser or more relaxed on screen, and neither has Robert Pattinson, who plays the Dauphin of France like a skeevy Eurotrash lounge lizard. Between Chalamet’s appropriate seriousness as a monarch under fire and the various conspiracies and agendas among the king’s counselors, both Edgerton and Pattinson provide necessary comic relief, even though both of their characters are capable of battlefield savagery. The way the film changes Falstaff’s fate provides resonance to the plotting overall, and a great deal of that has to do with Edgerton’s performance and his onscreen chemistry with Chalamet.
The Battle of Agincourt is a rousingly choreographed bit of mayhem, with Chalamet’s Henry hacking his way through the mud (and through a number of French soldiers) in what editor Peter Sciberras (“The Rover”) has no doubt deftly finessed to look like one uninterrupted shot. But the film balances its blood and guts with a post-war reckoning for Henry who, in his impending marriage to French Princess Catherine (Lily-Rose Depp), is forced to face hard questions about who benefits from the slaughter and who gets left to die.
Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (“The Light Between Oceans”) does extraordinary work — some of which might, again, get lost on the small screen — from the dank shadows of Hal and Falstaff’s favorite tavern to a bravura sequence in which catapults hurl fireballs at a French castle for days, allowing us to see the sortie in twilight, at sunrise, and in the dead of night. Arkapaw also creates deeper shadows over Chalamet’s eyes as the film progresses, underscoring the actor’s transformation over the course of the film.
“The King” isn’t going to supplant Shakespeare’s version of these events, nor the legendary screen adaptations of it from Branagh, Olivier, Welles, Van Sant and others. But Edgerton and Michôd find ways to keep their film in period-appropriate language (“I welcome your umbrage!”) while also challenging the rah-rah belligerence that has made the tale so popular among war propagandists.