The idea of another prestige period drama is almost physically exhausting to my body at this point. Hell, The King isn’t even the first prestige period drama for Netflix in the last year, with David Mackenzie’s admirable, but not heavy-hitting, Outlaw King hitting the streaming service last fall (becoming more famous for the 2 second shot of Chris Pine’s penis more than anything else). Yet, Netflix, despite this fatigue, is snagging some truly great talent for these films, with contracting Animal Kingdom and The Rover director David Michôd to helm The King with collaborator/star Joel Edgerton in assistance writing, producing and starring in the film, with Brad Pitt also featured in a producing role. On top of that, they’ve secured indie mega-darlings Timothée Chalamet and Robert Pattinson in main roles, with other big names dotting the cast including Edgerton, Ben Mendelsohn, Sean Harris, Lily-Rose Depp, and Thomasin McKenzie, just to name a few. Despite the impressive team, there is a problem if The King doesn’t do anything new or interesting.
And from experience, let me tell you that The King doesn’t do anything new, but it does do something interesting: it’s not afraid to be the campy costume drama it is at heart.
The year is 1413, and the King of England, Henry IV, is dying. In line for the crown is his second-born son, Thomas of Lancaster (Dean-Charles Chapman), due to his first-born son, Henry of Monmouth’s (Timothée Chalamet [known as “Hal”]) estrangement from the royal lifestyle, finding comfort in drink and sex. With mounting tensions against France abound, Hal is forced onto the throne after his father’s death from illness and Thomas’s unexpected death in battle. With a reluctance to the crown, Hal, now known as Henry V, must find his footing as a young king with his battle against France, specifically with the crown prince, only known as the Dauphin (Robert Pattinson).
When I say this film is campy, it’s not necessarily an insult as this more lighthearted tone leaves the film a lot more room to be taken less seriously than other films of its type. This doesn’t necessarily mean the film doesn’t have its darker and more serious moments, but it’s buoyed by some humorous interludes and some, perhaps unintentionally, hammy performances from very good actors. It’s all a good time that doesn’t feel inherently consequential.
I’ll make a confession: I am not the largest Chalamet super-fan on the face of the Earth. No role has really blown me away in the way that others have found power in, and I’ll be the first to tell people that I just flat out didn’t like Call Me by Your Name (I’m perhaps the only homosexual on this planet that didn’t). It all felt as if he’s played different versions of his own persona up to this point, with no real feeling that he’s ever really pushing himself as an actor. While I can’t say that this necessarily changes my feelings overall, it at least shows me that he has a side that can have a bit more fun in a role. It also shows that he can’t do an English accent to save his life. This surprisingly doesn’t put a heavy burden on the film as it might imply, as it somewhat provides a bit of hammy reprieve from what I’ve come to expect from Chalamet’s performances. It’s objectively not Chalamet at his best, but it’s the first character that I’ve really enjoyed watching him bring to life on screen if only for the fun I got to have alongside him in the role.
It’s hard to focus on Chalamet’s performance, in its cheesy glory, when Pattinson is right in front of us, doing perhaps the most over-the-top French accent I’ve heard in a film since Steve Martin was in the Pink Panther remakes. It’s a gloriously self-aware performance that Pattinson seems to be having a blast with. This is the performance that made the campy intentions of The King far more clear to me, allowing me to simply let my preconceived notions of what I expected the film to be to melt away. Again, it’s not Pattinson’s best performance by a long shot (though, it’s also far from his worst), but he’s having such a good time being the campiest version of his character that it’s impossible not to have a grand old time with him.
Despite the narrative campiness, The King is a beautiful film to behold on the big screen. It’s the only Netflix film I saw at Film Fest 919 that felt like it actually benefitted from the theatrical experience. It’s a film with a grand scale, beautiful production design, and a stunningly swoon-worthy score from Nicholas Britell. It’s a bevy of moving parts that all come together to make something worth taking seriously. It’s not a colorful or bright film by any means, but, as a film that looks to replicate its time period with any sense of beauty remaining, it does a very fine job in doing so. See it on the biggest screen you can, even if that just means your television. You’ll appreciate every little detail you’ll pick up from that upgrade.
At 140 minutes, The King is an objectively long film, but one without any major pacing issues, sans its final act. The film spends a good deal of time with a grand finale that concludes rather quickly to send the film into a pseudo-fourth act that, while complemented wonderfully by perhaps the best performance in the film from Lily-Rose Depp, does suffer from “Why Won’t This Movie End?” Syndrome. Where the film does decide to end makes this final stretch of story feel undercooked and incomplete, compared to where it could’ve cut off with a bang. It’s an unfortunate, even if competently acted, narrative choice.
I’m honestly kind of shocked how much I enjoyed The King, given my fatigue of period epics, Timothée Chalamet, and testosterone-fueled stories of power. It’s a film that flips all your expectations of the film on its head, for better and for worse. For those looking for that serious prestige pic, you’re not going to get it here, and you’re better off with a rewatch of Outlaw King. Yet, for those looking for something a bit more lighthearted, with good actors forcing bad accents with over-the-top performances, it’s definitely something to consider. I wasn’t completely sure if the film was supposed to feel that way at first, but once The King kicked into high gear and the film’s intentions were made entirely known, I couldn’t help but have a ton of fun with it. Viewers deserve nothing less than that.
In select theaters beginning October 11th, 2019.
Available for streaming on Netflix November 1st, 2019.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.