Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The King: Get Me Rewrite!

Timothée Chalamet in The King (2019).

This review contains spoilers.
In a capsule review of a 1932 straight-dramatic movie of Madame Butterfly, the critic Pauline Kael wrote, “Is there someone out there who has always wanted to know what the opera was about, without being distracted from the plot by the music?” The new film The King (which was in some theatres in October and is currently streaming on Netflix) sets out on an equally dunderheaded mission: rewriting Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry V without the distractions of, you know, the verse and the humor and the greatest coming-of-age narrative ever written and the most complex treatment of war ever put on a stage.

In this version, co-written by the director, David Michôd, and Joel Edgerton (who plays Falstaff), Prince Hal (Timothée Chalamet) is a pouty wastrel with straggly rock-star curls – he eventually chops them off, before his coronation as Henry V – who is too sullen and ill-tempered to pay much attention to his dying father, Henry IV (Ben Mendelson), until he learns that his brother Thomas (Dean-Charles Chapman) has died in battle and he has to take on the crown. Are we supposed to like this dude? Even when he’s doing something noble – like challenging the rebel Hotspur (Tom Glynn-Carney) to single combat in an effort to prevent a war and save Thomas’s life – he’s so grim and unsmiling that it makes his best impulses look like duties he performs only under duress.

Some great actors have taken on the role of Hal in Henry IV and Henry V (where he’s no longer called Hal) – Laurence Olivier in his own 1944 film of Henry V, Kenneth Branagh in his 1989 version, Keith Baxter in Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight (based on Henry IV and my choice for the greatest Shakespearean movie ever made), Tom Hiddleston in the 2013 adaptation of the Henriad, The Hollow Crown. Casting Timothée Chalamet in the part is a mockery. I’m sorry but I just don’t get the draw of this actor, with his androgynous punk-child looks. (He has so many barechested scenes in the first section of this movie – through the coronation – that it starts to feel creepy.) I’ve seen him in Lady Bird and Beautiful Boy and of course Call Me by Your Name, and if he’s got any talent at all I haven’t found it. He purses his lips and drops his heavy lids and that’s all you get by way of emotion, except on the rare occasion when he gets worked up and screams his lines.

Edgerton, that peerlessly dull performer who lulled audiences to sleep in Loving, is ridiculously miscast as Sir John Falstaff, but in this version he doesn’t represent the prince’s tavern youth – the uninterrupted holiday he has to put by for the everyday (to use Northrop Frye’s terms) when he steps up to the throne. This isn’t the Sir John Shakespeare brought onto the field of the Battle of Shrewsbury so that he could deliver a philosophical defense of cowardice and then claim he was the one who felled Hotspur. Edgerton’s Falstaff is a veteran soldier and a brilliant, earthbound military strategist who comes up with the plan that wins the young king the Battle of Agincourt – a battle that, the movie tells us in a narrative twist at the end, should never have been waged in the first place, because Henry was beguiled into war with France by a self-serving minister (Sean Harris).

You don’t have to love Shakespeare to hate The King, which is heavy-handed and humorless and acted with bloodless conviction by almost everyone in the cast. (Robert Pattinson certainly holds the camera as the Dauphin, the French prince, who turns out to be something of a psychopath, but I wouldn’t call it his finest hour, and even Ben Mendelson isn’t especially good, though he does bring authentic gravitas to the role of the fading monarch; you feel the loss of it when the movie dispatches him.) But if you do love Shakespeare, then this movie can make you mutter obscenities under your breath. You can bet I did when young King Henry revved up his troops before Agincourt with a collection of platitudes, an embarrassing substitute for the celebrated “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” speech.

The film is well lit by Adam Arkapaw, and some of the images of the English preparing for Agincourt are lovely, though once the battle begins Michôd shoots too close, so you can’t always tell what’s going on. This sequence does animate the movie, though the filmmakers keep The King going for several dreary more scenes so that Henry can learn that he was a dupe to go to war in the first place. Has there ever been such an unappealing war hero on the screen? Whatever elements of this character the movie’s star doesn’t manage to zombify the screenplay’s unearned cynicism grinds into nothingness. Stay home and screen The Hollow Crown instead.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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