About a year ago, Netflix released Outlaw King, which stood then and now as a perfect example of the kinds of films that fall through the cracks as studio paradigms shift. A mature, violent and even — dare I say — somewhat stodgy period piece, Outlaw King is the kind of movie that can only be made by a studio with a somewhat laissez-faire attitude — one that does not particularly care about selling Happy Meals and pleasing quadrants and such forth.
The problem with Outlaw King is that it was kind of dull, a movie with the best of intentions that nevertheless became thoroughly bogged down in historical minutiae. The problem with the vast majority of historical films — especially ones set pre-industrialization — is that filmmakers feel bound to history, and history does not really care what’s cinematic or not. Great world leaders keeled over and died unceremoniously; some generals won incredible battles and died in inconsequential ones. Even more specifically, history can be incredibly repetitive, so much so that one person’s life can essentially consist of the same thing over and over again until they die from drinking fucked up well water.
All of these are obstacles that remain fundamentally tied to the kind of movie that David Michôd’s The King wants to be: an intimate drama coiled inside a historical epic that’s both Braveheart-ian and Shakespearian. The good news is that Michôd and co-writer Joel Edgerton (who also appears as Falstaff) have based the film less on history than they have on Shakespeare’s Henriad, his tetralogy of historical plays. Shakespeare, as you may already know, was more of a dramatist than an armchair general obsessed with date-and-place minutiae, which generally bodes favourably for The King. On the other hand, it’s a lot of ambition for one movie. Even if you shift focus away from historical minutiae, you’ve got a lot of story to tell.
As King Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn) approaches death, he must find a successor. His choice falls on his son Hal (Timothée Chalamet), an irresponsible party boy who uses his prince status to sleep around and get fucked up with his drinking buddy Falstaff. Hal hates the idea of combat and hates the dick-swinging that would be required of him if he became king, which makes the eventual transition shaky. Most are unimpressed with the young king’s governing methods, especially as a seemingly inevitable war with France brews.
It’s a lot of story to cram into one movie. Michôd has essentially reduced the Shakespeare plays to bones and gristle, fashioning a coming-of-age story that has a lot of texture but not a whole lot of meat. The story of Hal remains a fairly contemporary one, where notions of power clash with one’s desire to emancipate themselves from expectations thrust upon them. To go from drunken jabroni to leader of one of the most powerful armies in the world requires a radical shift, but The King is ultimately too short on character development to really sell that change. Chalamet is perfectly cast as a dispassionate privileged kid who treats power as a kind of inherited curse, but the switch is all but imperceptible in the movie. It seems clear that Michôd’s goal is to find a balance between the mud-spattered battle scenes (which are plentiful) and the more inward personal moments (which are even more plentiful), but the character moments feel perfunctory at best.
This becomes even more blindingly obvious with the late-in-the-game appearance of Robert Pattinson as the Dauphin, prince of France. Throughout the film, the Dauphin is hinted at; similarly, Hal interacts with French people mainly by speaking French himself. But when the Dauphin actually appears, the movie stops dead in its tracks. Adorned with bright blonde locks that suggest proto-Cobain grunge flair, Pattinson tears through the role in cartoonishly accented English, refusing to speak French to the king. “(I like English,” he says. “So ugly and simple.”)
My first instinct was to consider this a bad performance, out of step with the rest of the film. But Pattinson’s deeply weird, strangely committed approach to the role is actually a hint of what The King’s bizarre hybrid of Shakespeare and history could actually have been. If the basis for all this is, in fact, theatrical, then there’s no real reason to keep things as grim and glum as they are. Pattinson’s performance sticks out, certainly; it’s fairly Nicolas Cage-like in its single-minded disregard for the film around it… in practice. In retrospect, it sort of feels like Pattinson’s the only one who’s really understanding where this could go.
For all of its flaws, The King is a fairly compelling piece of period business. It’s grounded enough to feel like a contemporary story rather than a parade of powdered wigs and petticoats spouting historical talking points; its action scenes are raw and brutal enough to provide a decent counterpoint to the rest of it. But ultimately, The King’s most memorable moments are the various missed opportunities at hand: the politeness of the ultimate product, the vagueness of its main character’s arc and the overall generic nature of its otherwise pretty unusual premise. Unlikely to appease history buffs or Shakespeare nerds, The King wants to have its cake and eat it, too — but Pattinson got there first. ■
The King opens in theatres on Friday, October 25 before hitting Netflix on Nov. 1. Watch the trailer here: