Finally, an answer to the question on everyone’s lips – what if Outlaw King was even more ‘meh’? The King follows a wayward, irreverent prince (Timothée Chalamet) who ascends to the English throne after his father Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn) passes away. The film is based on several different Shakespeare plays, of which I’ve read precisely none – so I can’t speak on how well it works as an ambitious adaptation of the Bard’s Henriad.
What I can say is that The King is mostly a bore – one of the most insidious kinds of bores at that. Well made, but unremarkable. Keeps you awake, but not engaged. It has a few twists, but no surprises.
Chalamet seems stifled and uncomfortable in the role. He’s an incredibly gifted performer, so I’m inclined to put the blame on the inconsistent characterization. Hal just isn’t a particularly compelling protagonist. He changes throughout the film, but doesn’t seem to grow. A lot of the shifts in his mood or demeanour feel forced or unearned. The story needs Hal to be in a certain place emotionally, so all of a sudden he’s just there. Hal learns that his younger brother is now next in line for the throne and that his father is sending him into battle with rebels. Concerned for his brother’s life, he offers the rebels’ leader a deal – a one-on-one fight to determine the final outcome of the battle.
Much later in the film, French soldiers massacre a group of children collecting firewood for the English army. An enraged Hal contemplates murdering his French prisoners and displaying their corpses in retaliation. Both of these seem like understandable reactions, but the way they play out in The King is jarring. The latter case is at odds with Hal’s cautious, reluctant and merciful approach to war up to that point in the story. As for the former, there were no scenes to establish the relationship between the two brothers beforehand. As such, it often feels like we’re being told what Hal feels rather than going on an emotional journey with a character. In this scene, he is angry. In this scene, he’s concerned for his brother. There’s a disconnect between what’s shown and how it actually resonates with the audience.
Of the supporting cast, Joel Edgerton as Falstaff and Sean Harris as
William Gascoigne are the most noteworthy. Edgerton is by far the most at ease with his performance, and he brings a dash of salt-of-the-earth levity. He’s Hal’s loyal companion and moral compass. Harris is the shifty, cunning advisor that Hal relies on to navigate war, treachery and the complicated nature of ruling.
I guess it’s a SPOILER to say that one of them betrays Hal and the other dies, but the way these events unfold in The King is so underwhelming that they don’t feel like the big moments they should be. For one, you can see them both coming from a thousand miles away. The betrayal makes Hal look like a gullible idiot for not figuring it out sooner. As for the death, The King doesn’t try to hide it’s coming, yet when it does happen, it’s so understated that it falls completely flat.
The action scenes lack tension and excitement. They often focus on Hal, except typically you’re conscious of the fact that the character just isn’t in any real danger. The big battle plays out like a slowed down, much duller take on Game of Thrones‘ Battle of the Bastards, with a little bit of Outlaw King sprinkled in. It’s hard to care much about it when tactically, we’ve already been told exactly how it’s going to play out. Everything goes exactly as planned. Hal’s big speech before the battle is more embarrassing than it is inspiring. It’s just Chalamet straining to yell as loudly as possible.
The King’s one, undisputed shining light is Robert Pattinson‘s very memorable turn as The Dauphin of France. His intentionally hilarious French accent is an endless source of delight and his final moments are wondrously embarrassing. It’s a character that’s both a serious threat and an absolute joke and Pattinson really sells the crap out of every moment.
It’s tough to review a film that just leaves you indifferent. I’ve criticized The King a lot, so just going off of that, you’d think it was a bad film. It’s just mediocre. The most middle-of-the-road film I’ve seen in a while. It made me feel like watching Outlaw King again, which I’d also recommend you show some love instead. It’s not great, but it is more enjoyable than The King.