By Jillian Schneider & Jordan Williams
The film challenges the audience to analyze their own relationships
David Michôd’s film, “The King,” presents a dark and cautionary tale of deception, betrayal, and gruesome bloodshed. Weaving together three of William Shakespeare’s plays, Michôd presents the story of King Henry V of England, a good man corrupted by lies and distrust.
The audience is introduced to Prince Henry “Hal,” played by Timothée Chalamet, when he lives in obscurity, accompanied by his most trusted friend, Sir John Falstaff, played by Joel Edgerton. Hal has no desire to be king and loathes his father, the warmongering King Henry IV, played by Ben Mendelsohn. However, his father’s death leaves him no choice, and the newly crowned King Henry V departs on a journey that will transform him into the monstrous monarch he despises.
Due to civil unrest in England, the king’s advisors, particularly William Gascoigne, portrayed by Sean Harris, urge him to prove his strength by waging war with France, claiming that other kingdoms will see Hal’s passivity as a sign of weakness. He initially refuses, but when Gascoigne discovers a French assassin sent to murder the king, Hal agrees.
Upon their arrival, they are met by the Dauphin of France, portrayed by Robert Pattinson, who brutally murders several children and threatens to massacre all of England. Although the French outnumber the English, Sir John Falstaff suggests a risky plan: to fight without armor, using the marshlike terrain to their advantage. While the Dauphin is killed in the ensuing battle, Falstaff also sacrifices himself to ensure that the plan succeeds.
Not once in its two-hour and twenty-minute running time does the film attempt to dilute the raw brutality and horror of war. The tone is dark, and death is shown with uncanny realism. Michôd incorporates long takes throughout the battle sequence, following Hal’s activity in battle without cutting away, capturing all the brutal, unstylized action. The film constantly reminds the audience of Falstaff’s observation: “War is bloody and soulless.” The viewer cannot encourage or enjoy it; they can only watch and be disgusted.
After the battle, France surrenders, and Hal meets with the king of France, who suggests that Hal marry his daughter, Catherine, played by Lily-Rose Depp, to solidify the new kingdoms. Upon their arrival home, England is finally unified and peaceful, rejoicing in their victory over France.
However, the film offers one final and shocking twist: Catherine reveals that the king of France never wanted war with England and never sent an assassin. In one sickening moment, Hal realizes everything he believes is a lie. Gascoigne, his advisor, concocted the assassination plot and resulting war with France as a ruse to expand his personal wealth. As the movie progressed, the viewers, like Hal, justified the bloodshed as an unfortunate necessity. However, when the audience realizes that it was unnecessary, they feel the weight of that horror as much as Hal does because they have been with him in every council, in every battle, and with every single person he has murdered.
Even worse, Hal knows he has become a monster, just like his father. In the final minutes of the film, Hal first murders Gascoigne and then asks Catherine to always speak the truth to him, embodying his rejection of deceit and acceptance of honesty.
Throughout the film, Hal’s friendship with Falstaff was symbolic of Hal’s relationship with the truth. Falstaff was the only person who was ruthlessly honest with Hal. The more self-deceived Hal became, the farther he pushed his friend away. This symbolism culminated with Falstaff’s death in battle. Because the war with France was based on a lie, Falstaff, the representative of truth, needed to die.
The film challenges the audience to analyze their own relationships, if they are honest with themselves and if their friends are truthful with them. Ironically, it is Hal’s only true friend, Falstaff, who warned him that “a king has no friends. Only followers and foe.” However, the titular king did have one friend, a friend who sacrificed his life in battle, a friend who always told the truth.