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The King Is a Chaotic Coming of Age

The new Netflix movie sets Timothée Chalamet and Robert Pattinson on two gloriously, absurdly different paths.

Courtesy of Netflix

In The King, David Michod has made a version of William Shakespeare’s Henriad as cool and competent as an advertisement for medieval history. Stately, handsome, as meticulously tooled and uniformly gray as chainmail, it might have been forgettable if it were not for a third-act appearance from a frankly unhinged Robert Pattinson. Playing the arrogant French Dauphin, Henry’s enemy in war, he steals the film with fewer than a dozen lines. The moment he appears onscreen, he brings with him a mad, Klaus Kinski energy, squaring up to Timothée Chalamet’s Henry V as if the two men are not just in different movies, but entirely different genres. “Your mah-justee, I ‘ave come to describe fer yew yeur end days,” he drawls, sounding like the direct ancestor of Pepé Le Pew, The Pink Panther’s Inspector Clouseau, and at least three characters from the sitcom Allo ‘Allo.

Ah will drain yeur body of eets blood and bury eet under a tree. A littul French tree. Very yeung, very small. Since perchance that is fitting of yeur mind to come here. Small. And maybe yeur…

The pantomime he does for “cock,” almost immediately followed by one that is even more ridiculous and about twice as dirty, is impossible to express through the medium of the written word. Suffice to say: It is sublime. “But yeur balls must be beeg, non?” he concludes. “Giant balls ... with a tiny leetul cock!”   

The Dauphin’s hair—apparently highlighted blonde, despite the fact that the Battle of Agincourt took place in 1415—flows to his shoulders like a surfer’s, as if in preparedness to go once more unto the beach. “Ah enjoy to speak Eengleesh,” he says, sounding like he has never spoken English in his life. “Eet is seemple, and uh-gly.” At one point, he meets a small boy in the woods, and bellows “ALLO LEETUL BOY!” with the élan of a man hired to play the villain in a pantomime. In every scene, Pattinson has the air of somebody suppressing a hilarious secret, a smile playing on his lips even when he is threatening murder, and in every scene he seems a hair from prefacing his lines with “ow you say…?” Lily-Rose Depp, who appears briefly as the Dauphin’s sister and is actually half-French, declared herself to have been “totally, totally surprised, but really pleasantly surprised” by his delivery. Most of the film’s audience will no doubt be in agreement. 

“I just had a feeling he would make it fun,” Michod has said, not incorrectly. “And I needed that. He is a supporting character. It was very, very important to me that when he did appear it was with razzle-dazzle.” Robert Pattinson, who like Timothée Chalamet was once a pale, anachronistic-looking heartthrob, and has since become the kind of man to tell Matt Lauer that he watched a clown die at the circus as a joke (“his little car exploded,” he tells Lauer seriously in the clip, as if relating some formative trauma. “The joke car exploded on him”), is rarely afraid of bringing razzle-dazzle to a role. In the grimy, electrifying Good Time, for which he signed up on the strength of having seen one still from a previous Safdie Brothers movie, he more or less trashed his image as a sex symbol in favor of becoming a character actor. In Claire Denis’s bleak space fantasia High Life, he cemented the transition by playing the lead in a film he himself described as being “about, kind of, having your semen stolen from you in a spaceship and, like, forcibly impregnating people.”

It is interesting to note that at 23, the age that Chalamet is now, he was still serving time as Edward Cullen in the Twilight series, an ordeal that has no doubt contributed to his desire to take risks in his career. “There’s a little gremlin inside of me that thinks, ‘Just say something shocking. You’re only here for a few minutes, say something terrible,’” he admitted to Willem Dafoe in Interview magazine late last year, talking about his attitude towards the press, but also somewhat accurately pegging what he offers in The King. “There’s a kind of perverse glee I get from that.”

In Shakespeare’s Henriad, the arc that Prince Hal follows from Henry IV Parts I and II through to his coronation and eventual triumph in battle in Henry V is in itself not unlike the ascension of a boyish movie star: Initially regarded as a heavy-drinking wastrel, he is forced to prove himself worthy of public adulation by recasting himself as a serious man, leaving behind his youthful follies to cement his place in history. The diminutive “Prince Hal,” a nickname meant to cut him down to size, is not a million miles away from the equally-belittling “R-Pattz,” or the cutesy “Timmy Chalamet.” Making The King, it would appear that Chalamet is—to extend the metaphor—mounting his own version of Agincourt, a swing for power meant to announce his arrival as a full-grown leading man. Certainly, he has a face designed for solemn close-ups: minutely expressive, perfect at conveying doubt and fear. If he is capable of the “perverse glee” and the buck-wild, go-for-broke idiocy that Pattinson brings to the screen, he has not yet permitted us to see it. When the camera cuts between them, Chalamet is still and exquisite, and Pattinson is gloriously, stupidly outsized. What results is a fascinating switch between the sacred and the thrillingly profane.

When he appeared as if from nowhere in Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name, what made Chalamet so affecting was the way that, like an optical illusion, he appeared to shift from man to boy and back again, occasionally graceful and composed, and far more often petulant and attitudinally teenaged. Ironically, a little of Elio’s kid self-centeredness—to say nothing of the adolescent sex-drive that drove him to quite literally have sex with a peach—would not have gone amiss in his portrayal of the young and wayward Henry V, whose Wikipedia entry has a section with the brilliant title “Supposed Riotous Youth.” In interviews, Chalamet has proven as studious and as earnest as Pattinson is irreverent, with Guadagnino noting his “intoxicating ambition to be a great actor” in a 2018 interview in GQ. (Pattinson, when he was roughly the same age that Chalamet was in that profile, was bundled into media training for suggesting that he styled his hair with the spit of twelve-year-old virgins.) Consequentially, if he does not effectively embody the young Prince’s sybaritic qualities, he is well-suited to the role of a boy King: Something about him does appear predestined, focused on his future eminence. It is difficult to picture Chalamet, the youngest person to be nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars in eight decades, wasting much valuable time on drunken revelry.

Because The King does not use Shakespeare’s dialogue, we do not hear the Prince talking about hot wenches or the tongues of bawds; there is some light carousing, and some heavy moping, but Chalamet’s Hal often seems emo rather than excessive in his hedonism. It does not help that in loose breeches and a tunic, he resembles a beautiful gap-year student with a penchant for hemp harem pants, or that for the first half an hour he has the same tousled, heroin chic hair that he typically wears to fashion week. Co-written by Joel Edgerton, who also appears as its taciturn, un-comic Falstaff, the film’s relatively unpoetic screenplay is more interested in the ever-looping relevance of its sexual and class politics—dick-swinging rulers starting fruitless power struggles, poor men laying down their lives in service of other, more powerful men’s whims—than it is in replicating the musicality and elegance of the original text. (Viewers’ tolerances may vary: Personally, I would argue that to rewrite Henry V’s lyric, immaculate Saint Crispin’s Day address takes, as the Dauphin says to Hal, extremely beeg balls.)

If it is meant to function as a coronation for an older, graver incarnation of Timothée Chalamet, The King is half successful. It is more likely to be remembered as the film in which Robert Pattinson took his love of perversity to its logical end. Having survived the trial-by-fire of emerging as a sensitive, talented actor after years spent in the wilderness of young adult vampire movies, he is free from the tyranny of having to make “good” decisions, giving him the opportunity to make interesting ones instead. He is hilarious here, rousing in his excess, and so evidently loving the experience that his pleasure is contagious: To watch him deploying troops with a minute flick of the wrist, or flipping his incongruous wig as if he’s posing for a catalogue, is joyful. He has nothing left to prove. He has us at ‘allo. The most interesting thing will be to watch Chalamet steadily reach the same level of abandon as he ages, until he is self-assured enough to play the fool.