Features, Reviews

Cinephilia: Revisiting 2019’s ‘The King’

When “The King” was released at the Venice International Film Festival in September of 2019, it was met with an overall appreciation for Timothée Chalamet’s portrayal of the warrior King of England, Henry V, and the beautifully stark medieval imagery.

Regardless, the film left many critics puzzled, let down and plainly, unsatisfied. Criticism was directed toward the script, historical inaccuracies, lack of screen time for female characters and an overt failure to deliver on such grand potential.

the king film
David Michôd’s “The King.” While the film was panned by critics, its historical accuracy and performances by Timothée Chalamet, Lily-Rose Depp and Joel Edgerton are worthy of praise. ILLUSTRATION BY HANNAH YOSHINAGA/ DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

These thoughts cannot be appointed as true.

Directed by David Michôd and co-written by Michôd and Joel Edgerton, “The King” follows the rise of Henry V as he inherits the crown and England’s ongoing war with the French, culminating in the Battle of Agincourt. Starring Chalamet as the titular Henry V, Edgerton as Shakespeare’s Falstaff and Lily-Rose Depp as Catherine of Valois, “The King” is one of the best films of 2019.

A film that revolves around such a medieval premise promises, if anything, one certain thing: bitter reality. The historical trope of the glamorous medieval lifestyle isn’t false, but glamor shouldn’t be associated with a medieval epic. “The King” depicts the reality of early 15th century England — a country in recovery from a deposed king and ongoing wars, a place of morbid joy and a looming presence over the aristocracy and clergymen. Such a reality paints a grander portrait of sensationalism, which helps draw us into the story as we learn about Henry’s distanced relationship with his father, Henry of Bolingbroke — Henry IV, for that matter.

“The King’s” portrait of pre-Tudor England isn’t the only aspect that deserves recognition. The cinematography, handled by Michôd’s favored Adam Arkapaw, paints Henry’s reality as it was viewed by the King himself — brutal, bitter, dark and dangerous. Stark contrasts between a light and heavily grained filter apply a timely feel to the images. Flaming rocks fly through the sky, illuminating the young King’s face like little emblems of hope in the lurking darkness that is encompassing him.

The most impressive aspect of “The King” is the performances, most notably Chalamet’s and Edgerton’s, but also Depp’s anchoring and humbling role as Henry V’s future spouse. Chalamet quite literally transposes himself into the skeleton of the warrior King of England, placing his flesh onto the bones to embody the spirit and appearance of the former King. He’s cruel, he’s brash, he’s smart, he’s cunning, but most of all, he is uniquely organic to his rule and manner.

Depp, on the other hand, embodies the logic and realism of the period, her anchoring of Henry’s behavior through words of thought. Though Depp might only be on screen for a limited time, her role as the smart and pensive female mind brings out the passion of the King himself.

Edgerton’s take on Shakespeare’s beloved Falstaff is both the humorous relief needed from such a serious film, but also the beckoning voice of free will anchoring Henry’s cause of rule. Though both actors quite literally transformed themselves for their respective roles, the brilliance doesn’t come from their physical appearance but their chemistry and voice.

Such a relationship hones into the Shakespearean foundation of the film — the Henriad to be exact. This shouldn’t be surprising given the film is based on such text, but it is refreshing to understand the basis of Chalamet and Edgerton’s relationship as portrayed in written form. Perhaps this embrace of fiction, or historical fiction, is why critics were quick to denote several historical inaccuracies. At the same time, shouldn’t history be depicted in any form?

As a history minor, I embrace the historical accuracy agenda with full force. I too can understand the sticklers on the matter of life versus death or pike versus archer. However, I believe filmmakers should tell a story they deem necessary in any way they see fit.

A film of great image, performance, score and clever purpose, “The King” reigns strong above polarization as a pinnacle medieval tale.

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One Comment

  1. “… ‘The King’ is one of the best films of 2019.”

    YES, THANK YOU. 🙌 This movie has been perpetually unappreciated across the board. Casting, acting, cinematography, music, the costumes – my god, the costumes! – everything.