As the film opens, in the early 15th century, England is embroiled in a civil war with Scotland, and the Hundred Years’ War with France, while the physically failing and increasingly paranoid Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn) tries to keep restive precincts together amid threats from all sides. One of them, a young upstart named Sir Henry Percy, a.k.a. Hotspur (Tom Glynn-Carney), dares to talk back to the leader during a meeting of the privy council, an outburst that earns the young man instant dismissal from the king, who wistfully mutters, “If only he were my son.”
Henry’s son, the young and impulsive Prince Hal, is bro-ing down at the pub. Or sleeping it off. Or somewhere in between. Played with pallid romanticism by Timothée Chalamet, Hal is far more interested in drinking with Sir John Falstaff (Edgerton) than in being tutored on succession. Sleepy-eyed and milky-skinned, Hal is so alienated from his despotic and unhinged father that when a messenger delivers a summons to the king’s supposed deathbed, the party boy can’t be bothered to show up.
But we know how this ends, don’t we? The wastrel will step up to the occasion and, with the beery counsel of Falstaff — stout of heart, courageous of spirit and, really, one of history’s great hangs — he will rally the troops at Agincourt to bring England this close to conquering France for eternity. Michôd — best known for the searing crime drama “Animal Kingdom” — films “The King” with an eye toward the visual shorthand typical of period pieces (the monochromatic palette runs toward grays, slate blues and chalky whites) as well as violent battle scenes that, while not particularly bloody, are mired in the realism of mud, chain mail, spectacular attacks by way of catapults and arrows and, inevitably, rapidly accumulating corpses.
“The King,” in other words, looks great — especially when the lens pulls back to reveal acres of pomp and pageantry. And Chalamet and Edgerton are both impressively convincing as the reluctant monarch and his boisterous wingman, the latter of whom is given not just physical ballast but real gravitas in this telling. But it’s the psychological contours of Hal’s transformation into an “altogether different king” from his father that are missing from a film in which he seems to turn into Henry almost invisibly, his motivations — whether political, philosophical or Oedipal — relegated to the attractively appointed shadows.
Things take on a decidedly goofier turn when Robert Pattinson shows up as the taunting French Dauphin, his Pepé le Pew accent and blond wig only making his performance more of a jape. The Dauphin had sent Hal a ball when he attained the throne, a symbol of his perceived lack of seriousness; “The King” is the portrait of a man putting away childish things, and engaging in the time-honored rituals that are supposedly the making of the man (and, in this case, his majesty). But by the time Hal delivers what the audience can only think of as the St. Crispin’s Day speech, it’s a thudding anticlimax — the theatrical equivalent of, “Okay, guys, now get in there and give it all you’ve got!”
What should be soaring is instead lugubrious; what should be a ripping good yarn is instead dutiful and a little bit dull. There are images and ideas to value in “The King,” especially as a glimpse at the costs of bellicose posturing, manipulative power-seeking and overcompensating masculine pride. But it still feels like a wan copy of something more vital. Perhaps the most abiding lesson of “The King” is that if you come for the Bard, you’d best not miss.
R. At Landmark’s West End Cinema. Contains some strong violence and crude language. 140 minutes.