When Timothée Chalamet, as Henry V, worries out loud, “I’ve been forced to rely on the counsel of men whose loyalty I question every waking moment. I need men around me I can trust,” it’s hard not to transpose those words to the current occupant of the American White House. Yet, as Niccolò Machiavelli was so keen to point out (decades later and in a different country), isn’t that the worry of everyone in power?
Since winning a 2018 Best Actor Oscar for Call Me By Your Name, Chalamet has been primed for an epic role to rocket his young career to the next level of gravitas – and his turn as the exalted English sovereign in Netflix’ The King just might be it. Especially as, rather than settling on the usual heroism halo (as Henry is given by Shakespeare, upon whose writings the film is loosely based), we get a stark, brutal meditation on the cold, isolating realities of power. To be sure, Joel Edgerton as Falstaff tells him bluntly, “Kings have no friends. Only followers, and foes.”
And indeed, Chalamet doesn’t play Henry with Kenneth Branagh‘s towering dauntlessness – but rather with much existential anxiety. So we have a leader for this 21st Century age of self-reflection and self-doubt, despite his story taking place more than 600 years ago. And the war, even the glorious victory at the Battle of Agincourt, is depicted with unmitigated grimness. Still, the actor takes him from neophyte monarch to worldly warrior king via a convincing emotional arc.
Directed by David Michôd (writer/creator of Animal Kingdom), The King is visually arresting, especially in its depiction of the gruesomeness of war. It also gets good performances out of Lily-Rose Depp, Sean Harris, and Robert Pattison as the Dauphine of France. But it is Chalamet’s vehicle to be sure, with his Henry V so perfectly embodying all the film’s modern world moral ambiguities.
The King will be in theaters November 1.