Netflix’s ‘The King’ is a Shakespeare adaptation gone wrong

Wednesday, November 6, 2019 - 5:30pm

Timothée Chalamet in 'The King'

Timothée Chalamet in 'The King' Buy this photo
Netflix

It is not impossible to adapt Shakespeare’s 400-year-old plays for contemporary audiences. In fact, certain films — “10 Things I Hate About You,” “West Side Story” and Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo and Juliet” included — prove that it can be done exceptionally well, bringing Shakespeare’s timeless plots back into our world with style, creativity and intent. 

“The King,” Netflix’s latest venture into historical drama, unfortunately does not earn a spot alongside these other films. Though it is true to its source material, almost too true, and is generally impeccably shot and acted, there is something missing. That something is energy — the lack of it ultimately becoming its fatal flaw. It is unfathomably boring, which is surprising coming from source material that is jam-packed with action, conflict and character development. I admire anyone who can get through it in one sitting. 

“The King” tells the more or less true story of Henry V’s ascent to the English throne in the early 15th century following the death of his father. Henry, referred to as Hal in the movie and played by Timothée Chalamet (“Beautiful Boy”), is forced to abandon his immature and womanizing lifestyle in order to face the threat posed by the French army, led by Robert Pattinson (“The Lighthouse”) as the Dauphin of France. It is a classic monomyth, illustrating one person’s transformation from a boy into a man. 

Though Chalamet does his best to bring depth and personality to Hal, one can’t help but feel as though the character would have been better portrayed by an actor who can better pull off the assertiveness and authority that’s expected of a king. Perhaps my perceptions of Chalamet as an actor have been muddled by my understanding of him as a quintessential “soft boy,” but I just don’t think he was all that convincing. And when the portrayal of a character whose arc determines the course of the entire film is less than excellent, everything else within the film suffers as a result. It is near impossible to feel invested in a movie when you can’t bring yourself to care about the fate of its protagonist. 

The film does have one saving grace, and that is Pattinson’s unabashedly ludicrous, wonderfully insane joke of a performance that feels so out of place that it becomes the best thing about the film. His accent, which sounds like a mix of both Tommy Wiseau and the most stereotypical French accent you could possibly imagine, is absolutely fascinating to bear witness to, and it, along with his equally bizarre dialogue, gives us a much needed break from the film’s overbearing seriousness. Pattinson’s hair, which channels the likes of “Shrek 2”’s Prince Charming, tops off what is easily one of the most memorable performances of this year. It is a shame he didn’t get more screen time; I think my overall opinion of the film would be much different if he did. 

“The King” is the kind of Shakespeare adaptation I could see being shown in a high school English classroom, and I don’t mean that as praise. It tells the story of Henry V as written by Shakespeare well enough, but without any elements of daring or risk-taking that we know to be essential to the making of a truly worthwhile and necessary adaptation. I empathize with any students from the future who will be forced to watch it. The film’s swift and inevitable erasure from our collective memory should serve as a lesson to Netflix that no amount of money and no amount of star power can make up for a lack of passion.