Updated: May 28, 2020
The Netflix production “The King” brought to us by David Michod and Joel Edgerton once again reminds us of the timelessness of historical literature, and particularly that within the compelling subject matter chosen by William Shakespeare. True, for the purists among us, the film does not adhere to the inimitable text of Shakespeare, but rather is a kind of mosaic composite of anecdotal excerpts from Shakespeare’s “The Henriad”.
"The Henriad" is one of Shakespeare’s four-play series, and is comprised of the plays Richard II, Henry IV Part One, Henry IV Part Two, and Henry V. The fact that Netflix’s “The King” does not attempt to replicate verbatim, or even with an entirely accurate chronology, the above-referenced tetralogy, is entirely irrelevant when one slides seamlessly into this sometimes brooding, sometimes uplifting film creation. Should the viewer deem that this gem lacks either historical or literary accuracy, the recognition will quickly be replaced by rapid bewitchment.
The film is a painting from start to finish, leaving us to feel that we have just experienced a jaw-dropping display of landscapes, battlefields and Middle Age interiors via a museum-quality series of Master Painting vignettes. The musical score is not overblown or unnecessarily dramatic, but it haunts the viewer and presages the emotional paradoxes which drive the film's plot. Timothee Chalamet achieves the difficult task of magically emoting the inner turmoil of his unwanted rise to the throne by remaining stoic, and ostensibly expressionless, in much of the film. To act powerfully, while doing and saying virtually nothing looks effortless for him. He is part awkward teen, part Rodin's "The Thinker" and part ruthless armor-clad killer.
His British reticence and regal demeanor are believable, almost innate, as we watch him move from his Bacchanalian sloth to the rigors of leadership and self-sacrifice as his country's sovereign. Not to be repetitive, but it is the surreal beauty of the film which will not release you. Every detail of life in the Middle Ages is painstakingly curated to give a genuine quality to the sets, outdoor shots and even the attire and suitably greasy tresses of both noble and yeoman alike.
This film does not fall into the trap of so many historical dramas which are too bombastic and ornate in their presentation. The film feels more like a play than a film, and that quality requires a deftness of direction and production at which Michod and Edgerton clearly excel. They optimize the ability of the film medium to create mood and suspense, while preserving the moving intimacy of a theatrical connection between the audience and the players.
In the end, you won’t care whether the film is based upon Shakespeare, British history or just a fish tale which is a hybrid of the two. I arrived at the end of the one hundred forty minute masterpiece only bothered by the fact that it is a stand-alone piece, and not part of a multi-part Netflix series. The spell its creators and sorcerous actors cast is not one you will wish to have undone.