The King: How Timothée Chalamet and Joel Edgerton Rewrite Shakespeare
Filmmakers behind The King, including Timothée Chalamet, Joel Edgerton, and Lily-Rose Depp, consider battles, the Bard, and Henry V.
Joel Edgerton estimates he’s been living with Henry V, Henry IV, and the whole Lancaster era of British monarchs for half a lifetime. It certainly feels that long since he first performed both parts of William Shakespeare’s Henry IV at age 25 and then portrayed Henry V’s legendary conquest of France at 26. His longtime friend, director David Michôd, chuckles those productions were “legendary” in Australian theater too before seriously noting they got the ball rolling on The King—a new medieval war movie from Netflix that casts Timothée Chalamet as the young monarch who beat astronomical odds on the muddy fields of Agincourt.
“It just kind of became part of my timeline and part of my interest,” Edgerton says about his fascination with Henry V, a play he’s studied for years. “Cut to 2012, I’d been asked to do a sword and horse movie, and my mind just went back to Henry V. I thought, ‘Why doesn’t someone do this again?’ Albeit, we took that material and ran off with the pixies with it and did our own thing.”
The result is a film that pulls elements from the historical personage of Henry V, who became King of England at only 26 years old and two years later led a stunning victory against a French army at least six times greater in size. It also pulls from the work of Shakespeare, who is credited with writing the paterfamilias of dramatic pre-battle speeches when he put the words “St. Crispin’s Day” in Henry’s mouth. And it was up to Edgerton and Michôd, who co-wrote The King, to find something new to put there.
Says Michôd, “We knew we were moving away from Shakespeare in quite radical ways, but I never found it daunting except when it came to writing a big speech before the Battle of Agincourt. That’s such a famous speech and I needed to rewrite it! But I found thematic ways to get around feeling like I had to match or better Shakespeare. I found thematic ways of making the speech about something else, and knowing it was going to be coming out of the mouth of Timmy made it all feel good.”
Indeed, the role of Henry is something of a departure for Chalamet. Twenty-four and already an Oscar nominee after Call Me By Your Name, the actor has earned a large following for his naturalistic charm. Yet prior to The King, he hadn’t played a character who was a fully formed adult thrust into complex situations like war, statecraft, and political machinations. Then again those experiences were also foreign to Henry before the crown, which was part of the appeal to Chalamet.
“It is acting but at the end of the day, you are going through it to some extent, or at least your body is,” Chalamet explains. “[In] the situation of being a young person thrust into adulthood, the lesson was the lack of lessons in it. The total ambiguity of that kind of situation is a feeling reminiscent of realizing your parents are just humans, and the idea of somebody at this age could be assuming leadership of a country is absurd.”
But rethinking the weight and expectation we place on people at certain stages of life is key to this vision of Henry’s reign. After all, Shakespeare’s most famed fictional creation in these plays is Falstaff, an old, drunken, and dubious father figure to young Henry in Henry IV, and who is dead at the start of Henry V. Yet in The King, he is a strapping, if still inebriated and disgraced, former general played by Edgerton. That wasn’t the original intention, but it fit with how he and Michôd were approaching the material.
“We were looking at what’s an old man,” Edgerton says. “Falstaff is referred to as an old man, and an old man like Henry IV died died at 45. That was an old man. So Falstaff could technically be considered an old man at the age of 45.” He notes that Falstaff was possibly based on the real historic figure of John Oldcastle, who served Richard II and Henry IV. “So [Falstaff could have] been in and around war, he experienced battle as a general, and maybe that’s what led to his ‘alcoholism’ and squandering his life away in a pub.”
It also allows Edgerton to be at the Battle of Agincourt in The King, a sequence in which the men in heavy armor, including Robert Pattinson as the Dauphine of France, dive into the mud against those without it. It’s a complicated sequence that Edgerton hopes lives up to the gaze of historians and one especially renowned connoisseur of big battles.
“There are a lot of people around the world who are battle enthusiasts, and Ridley Scott is one of them,” Edgerton tells me. “I just desperately want him to watch the movie, because I want to ask, ‘How did you feel about it?!’”
Beyond the battles, however, The King is meant to be a study in power and the youth that wields it. That is seen when Henry picks up the sword, but it’s also pivotal to the end of the film where he meets the woman who would become his queen: French princess Catherine of Valois. Presented by the Bard as an easily wooed, demure figure, Catherine was 19-years-old when she married Henry, the man who just bled her country and family. Which made her a perfect part for Lily-Rose Depp to do something new with.
“I think that one of the best creative licenses while writing the script was giving her the voice that they did give her, and the strength that they did give her,” the French-American actor tells us. “Historically, she was a very strong and independent woman and came from a family of very strong women. Her mother was ruling almost behind closed doors, and her father had bouts of madness. So she came from a strong background.” She also gives The King even greater context in its theme of young people forced into nuanced situations, which becomes the saving grace of this of King’s reign.
“When we’re talking about this time period, it’s a lot of young people who are put into positions of power when they’re not necessarily ready for them and that’s why they end up being advised by all these people whose intentions we’re not really sure of,” Depp considers. “She’s also being betrothed to a person she hasn’t chosen and who also has killed so many of her people, so I think that the strength to say to him what she does say to him, and to just keep such a level head and to harness her power in such a levelheaded way is really strong.”
read more: 15 Great Adaptations of Shakespeare
Yet while the quirks of age and heredity are increasingly rare in the Western world, the consequence of power used, and sometimes power abused, is timeless. Michôd even suggests he’s seen these themes play out in real-time over the years he’s worked on the project.
“I think it’s a testament to the power of Shakespeare,” Michôd states, “to the extent of that’s where we began, how eternally relevant it is. I remember when Joel and I first started talking, we were finding parallels between the George W. [Bush] administration and the Obama administration, and it just continues… these cabals of men with agenda.”
And it will continue when The King begins its streaming reign on Netflix on Nov. 1.
David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.