Those familiar with uneasy friends Falstaff and Prince Hal owe a debt to William Shakespeare, who put them in multiple plays and made them so enduring that creative spirits from Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier to Giuseppe Verdi were moved to retell their stories in film, opera and elsewhere.
Yet Shakespeare is nowhere mentioned in the on-screen credits for “The King,” Australian director David Michôd’s impressive new spin on the Hal/Falstaff relationship starring the protean Timothée Calamet and Joel Edgerton, and that is likely not an accident.
Rather it’s a signal from Michôd, who co-wrote the script with Edgerton, that he and his collaborators have boldly struck off on their own. They’ve nervily reimagined and remixed both the epic and the intimate elements of this classic narrative and successfully given it a determinedly contemporary tone.
Though it is a tale of real-life 15th-century rulers and lords, “The King” uses superior filmmaking and fully involving storytelling to make it seem very much a modern situation — in which wholly human individuals deal with up-to-date themes including power and its corruptions and the nature of friendship.
Putting his own spin on traditional material has become something of a trademark for the gifted Michôd, whose previous films include the exceptional “Animal Kingdom,” “The Rover” and “War Machine.”
Here he not only reunites with old colleagues like Edgerton, Ben Mendelsohn and Robert Pattinson, he’s brought in effective new players including Sean Harris, Tom Glynn-Carney, Lily-Rose Depp and Thomasin McKenzie. Together they have added characters to the familiar story, juggled events and, most fascinatingly, turned the jovial, fun-loving Sir John Falstaff almost completely on his head.
All this aside, however, it is key to note that previous knowledge of either Falstaff or Hal is not necessary to take pleasure in “The King” — the story in and of itself is strong enough to pull us in.
Before we meet either Falstaff or Hal, we spend a bit of time with his father, King Henry IV, England’s monarch. Though weary and in ill health, as expertly played by Mendelsohn he still conveys the appropriate off-key menace.
As much as his health, the king worries about rebels against his rule, the latest being the explosive Henry Percy, accurately nicknamed Hotspur (Glynn-Carney), a man so martial the king half-wishes he was his son.
The monarch’s actual oldest son, Hal, has abandoned the court, preferring to spend his time drinking and carousing in disreputable parts of London with what are usually referred to as “low companions.”
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Chief among these is Sir John Falstaff (Edgerton), a former soldier who is presented, contrary to tradition, as a serious figure, a giver of good advice as well as a tippler. When the ailing king sends word he wants to see his son, it is Falstaff who persuades Hal to go.
Though Edgerton is not surprisingly convincing as a Falstaff who drinks because he’s seen too much of war (“the thrill of victory fades quickly, what lingers is always ugly”), he is overshadowed, as he should be, by Chalamet, a shrewd choice for the mercurial Hal.
Making no attempt to disguise how slender and boyish Hal is, Chalamet effortlessly conveys the air of inborn command that hangs around the heir to the throne no matter how young and dissolute. More than that, the actor also calls upon an unexpected fierceness that makes Hal’s fitness for physical combat more than convincing.
Though the king is so fed up with his eldest son he intends to pass the throne to Hal’s younger brother, Thomas (Dean-Charles Chapman), events conspire to destroy that plan, and when Hal becomes Henry V, the king of the title, the film kicks into a higher gear.
Tired of his father’s incessant war-making, Hal yearns to become a different kind of ruler, a uniter rather than a creator of strife, and it is the business of “The King” to provocatively explore to what extent this will be possible.
Though Hal feels he has a sane advisor in William Gascoigne (an expert Sean Harris), the first warning shot is fired by his visiting sister, Philippa, now the Queen of Denmark (“Leave No Trace’s” fast-rising McKenzie), who warns him that no one speaks the truth to the king.
The wild card in Hal’s plans is the Dauphin, the heir to the French throne, played against type with a dazzling demented glee by Pattinson, who misses no opportunity to taunt the young king from across the English Channel.
Determinations to be a different kind of king notwithstanding, Hal finds himself preparing to invade France, and he is keen to have the experienced if unconventional Falstaff with him to watch his back.
Though psychological drama is at the heart of “The King,” the film does not neglect large-scale widescreen battles, magnificently shot and edited by Adam Arkapaw and Peter Sciberras, respectively, with a nod to the legendary work done in Welles’ landmark “Falstaff.”
Though she doesn’t appear until the final section, the film’s most prominent woman, Catherine of Valois (Lily-Rose Depp), is a key piece of “The King’s” intricate dramatic structure. Even if you suspect the world is going to be a tricky place, it can be trickier than you know.