What is Timothée Chalamet’s transition from young heartthrob to leading man going to look like?
Every young star has to go through something of a crucible in order to establish his bona fides as a leading man rather than just a handsome face. Robert Pattinson is the most recent example of someone who’s managed to do this successfully, leaving Cedric Diggory and Edward Cullen in the dust by working with some of the strangest auteurs (David Cronenberg, the Safdie brothers) in performances that have been stranger still.
The King, from David Michôd, seems to be Timothée Chalamet’s attempt at doing the same. Since breaking out in Call Me By Your Name (and shoring up the goodwill accrued through his Oscar-nominated turn with a small part in Lady Bird), Chalamet has established himself as an actor to watch, and Hollywood’s go-to for a teenage crush. He’s also already started trying to make inroads as an actor to be taken seriously, taking on Beautiful Boy, a story about drug addiction that challenged his dreamy image.
This adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Henriad” seems meant to do for Chalamet what Henry V did for Kenneth Branagh, establishing Chalamet as a capital-S Serious, hardened actor. It’s a historical epic that follows Henry’s (Chalamet) growth from prodigal son to king (from up-and-coming to the new Leonardo DiCaprio) as he’s forced to go to war. The King should be an ace in the hole.
That it ends up being more of a showcase for Pattinson than Chalamet is the film’s biggest irony, and nearly the only thing that keeps Michôd’s latest from being a total drag. Chalamet, who has proven himself worthy of the stan culture around him in his previous performances, is a black hole of charisma as Hal.
The moodiness that the script — by Michôd and Joel Edgerton, who also stars as Falstaff — demands of him turns him into a drip rather than fleshing out his character. He’s on the younger side when it comes to portrayals of Henry V, and there’s a hint of a fresh adaptation of Shakespeare’s work (and history) in seeing a figure we perceive as a fully-grown adult as more of a petulant adolescent. The King makes moves towards exploring that territory in its opening, as Henry is seen gallivanting around the city, but drops it almost as soon as Henry ascends to the throne. He’s automatically turned into a dour king, brooding at his subjects and enemies alike. There’s no in-between growth.
That his Henry is not particularly compelling — and that the accent he’s affecting can’t quite be placed — isn’t helped by the fact that he’s surrounded with much more colorful characters. Pattinson steals the show despite only showing up for roughly 15 minutes over an hour into the movie, sporting a so-terrible-it’s-great wig and a French accent that could be described exactly the same way. His character is mean and a little creepy — he’s a perfect antithesis to the dreamy image that Pattinson has previously been known for, helping usher Pattinson from dreamboat territory to an actor who has demonstrated his ability to do anything.
Chalamet’s performance is also overshadowed by Edgerton’s, as Falstaff is the closest thing Henry really has to a father figure. Edgerton, free to be as weird as he wants to be as a sidekick rather than a main character, swings for the fences, making up for the fact that he’s in better shape than most Falstaffs by dialing up his performance. He’s boisterous and loud, and big when it comes to his physicality, swinging his whole frame around like a bowling ball (until, like Henry, he’s forced to grow up).
But when neither Edgerton nor Pattinson are on screen, The King grows dull. The muted colors eventually turn into muddled darkness, especially in interior scenes. Though some shots of the battlefield — Falstaff seeming to drown in the throng of other soldiers, trebuchets firing flaming missiles in slow motion — show off Michôd’s eye for framing, but the occasional great visual isn’t enough to sustain The King’s entire 140-minute runtime. Add Chalamet’s performance, which feels like a few ropes thrown across a chasm that requires a well-constructed bridge, and The King falls short of greatness.
The King is streaming on Netflix now.