“All hail the king,” proclaim the posters dotted around the Venice Lido. The story of Henry V gets a revisionist, Netflix-backed interpretation from Animal Kingdom director David Michôd as a floppy-haired Timothée Chalamet goes boldly into the breach once more in Venice out-of-competition offering The King.
It’s an audacious move, dramatising a figure who has been definitively framed in the public imagination by William Shakespeare and more recently by actors and directors of the calibre of Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh. Michôd and fellow screenwriter Joel Edgerton have made some bold new decisions and offer an intriguing new look at one of England’s most heroic and iconic monarchs, even if perhaps inevitably it doesn’t quite bring home a historic victory.
In an infuriatingly vague title card, we are informed it is the beginning of the 15th century and Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn) is surrounded by rebellious subjects and the warring Welsh. Meanwhile, his son Prince Hal (Chalamet) is whoring and puking with Sir John Falstaff (Edgerton) much to the displeasure of his father. Such displeasure, in fact, that the plan is to pass him over in favour of his brother Thomas (Dean-Charles Chapman). But elderly kings and young princes can always die, and so Hal progresses to become King Henry V.
All Henry wants is peace but the French seem hell-bent on provoking a reaction, particularly the Dauphin (a wonderfully animated Robert Pattinson). Before you can say St Crispin’s Day the war gear is being packed on ships, traitors despatched and – in the film’s most daring revision – Falstaff, far from being abandoned with the rest of his damnable crew, is taken on as a trusted advisor.
Michôd and Edgerton’s script holds up well, maintaining a credible otherness without falling into cod archaisms. Edgerton’s Falstaff is blokeish rather than roguish and represents the moral centre of the film, informing the king’s better angels. It is a convincing idea even though the film sometimes bends over backwards to put him in the right (he lays out a battle strategy that should have been preceded by a spoiler warning, it turns out so flawlessly accurate). Without the warts, he risks becoming fat Gandalf. Pattinson is having the most fun and like a French (ridiculously) accented Alan Rickman in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, he seems to exist in another film altogether.
But the weight of the film is on the shoulders of young Chalamet. There’s no doubt that he’ll bring his own audience and Adam Arkapaw’s camera lingers on his pale body and droopy eyes, but he seems crushed by the weight of the role. His sullen Prince Hal is little different from his sullen King Henry – shy having his floppy locks shorn – and a pre-battle oration is an uninspiring bit of shouting, but at least it means for once we have something over than the under-the-breath level on which most of the dialogue is played.
At times The King has an epic scope, and the battles are well done – a muddy scrum of ignoble savagery. But the scale is also relatively small at points. We hear crowds outside of windows without seeing them. And Henry’s French campaign feels remarkably brief, his army a troop of extras rather than a band of brothers. The soundtrack by Nicholas Britell is an omnipresent drone that occasionally Zimmers its way to grandeur. Olivier’s Henry V famously spoke to the spirit of patriotism at a time of national crisis but here with another existential crisis on the horizon, The King feels disconnected and unurgent. Despite some wonderful moments, it perhaps lacks the requisite majesty.
The 76th Venice Film Festival takes place from 28 August-7 September.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty