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Film

David Michôd’s ‘The King’

By Harry Windsor
The Australian director on his Timothée Chalamet–starring adaptation of Shakespeare’s history plays

The King. Courtesy of Netflix

David Michôd has no idea if his new film, The King, a riff on Shakespeare’s history plays that stars Timothée Chalamet as Henry V and Joel Edgerton as Falstaff, is any good. But then, four features into a career that began with 2010’s Animal Kingdom, he never does. “I’ve learnt now that I just can’t judge it,” he says. “Doesn’t matter how many people I show when I’m cutting; doesn’t matter what that vibe is while we’re finishing it. When it’s out in the world it’s a whole other thing.”

Though it’s been lazily dinged by critics for all the ways it diverges from Shakespeare, The King is, I think, the Australian director’s best film: gripping, imaginative and modern without sacrificing the period on the altar of contemporary sensibilities, in the manner of last year’s Mary, Queen of Scots.

It’s been a meteoric rise for the former journalist, who made Animal Kingdom only a few years after he finished up at Inside Film, the industry magazine where he worked alongside industry-players-to-be such as Angie Fielder (who produced his first short, Crossbow, and went on to produce Lion) and Bec Smith (now an agent representing Michôd and just about every touted young director in the country).

Speaking to me the night after The King’s Sydney premiere, where teenage girls screamed themselves hoarse in the presence of Chalamet, Michôd seems grateful to be talking about the film instead of its bold-faced names. For the rest of the day, he tells me, perched on a couch in a hotel room fronting the harbour, “I’m gonna sit in front of television cameras and talk about Timmy’s hair.”

The 46-year-old’s last two films seemed like the work of a director experimenting: first with a kōan-like apocalyptic Western (The Rover, 2014), and then a melancholic war satire (War Machine, 2017) starring Brad Pitt. The King marks a return to the dynastic bloodletting (and narrative rug-pulling) that defined his debut, but this time on the vast scale made possible by Netflix, which also bankrolled War Machine.

The King retains story and character elements from Henry IV Part I and Henry V, and the impetus for adapting them came not from the director but from Edgerton, with whom he co-wrote the script. Edgerton played Prince Hal for Bell Shakespeare in 1999, only a few years before he met Michôd at Inside Film. The actor went on to star in Crossbow as well as Animal Kingdom, and the pair live within shouting distance in Bondi. It was on Bondi Beach, in fact, that Edgerton pitched their latest collaboration way back in 2012, and the two spent years fleshing it out. (Michôd fondly recalls “sitting on a beach in Lombok in board shorts, drinking pina coladas and just mapping out what this thing was going to be”.)

The result is a film starring the most heroic Falstaff you’ve ever seen – no less than the architect of victory at Agincourt. There’s even a cheeky line arguing for Sir John’s presence on the battlefield, rather than back in Eastcheap, because it “makes for a much better story”.

But though the co-writers, old pals that they are, have done away with Henry’s renunciation of Falstaff in favour of bromance forever, the film is otherwise very unsentimental indeed. Written during Obama’s second term, it’s the story of how easily idealism can be manipulated, of the institution’s ability to bring the man to heel. The film’s unspecific title is no accident. One of the books Michôd jibed with during his research was Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, which draws a parallel between the breakdown of the 14th century and the chaos that engulfed the 20th. “It’s impossible to tell any story,” he says, “no matter how period it is, and not [tell it] through the lens of the modern day.”

But the filmmaker was also at pains to honour the sheer unknowability of the period. As with Animal Kingdom, one of The King’s great assets is its atmospheric score, which seems to consist of variations on an ominous bass note. The director’s brief to Succession composer Nicholas Britell was to come up with something both of-the-genre and utterly alien. “If you think about how differently people spoke and held themselves even 50 years ago, then multiply that by 600 years… It’s almost inconceivable,” says Michôd. “And I wanted the music to reflect the otherworldliness of it.”

Michôd has now made four films in less than a decade, though he claims to “work really slow, so I don’t understand how that has happened”. His approach over that time has both changed and not. He no longer draws up meticulous shot-lists, partly because he uses multiple cameras these days – his long-time cinematographer Adam Arkapaw had up to four going on The King – and as a corollary he’s become less prescriptive about blocking: “I’ve very much come to appreciate what actors bring to the scene if you just let them explore the space.” But he’s also amazed by how similar the process feels, even to his experience making shorts. “Because even though the scale of them gets bigger, the crew gets bigger, I’m only ever really talking to the same number of people as I was in the early days. My heads of department and my key cast. And you just start chiselling away.”

The most obvious through-line of his career, of course, is an interest in the coming-of-age process; a preoccupation with “young men trying to figure out how the world works”, as Michôd puts it. “Because that was very much my experience: a kind of bewilderment and fearful confusion.” Back when he was writing Animal Kingdom, script editors all had the same note: the central character is a blank slate. “I remember realising that the character was impenetrable because my memory of being a teenager was impenetrable. I couldn’t remember what it was like to be a kid, in part because I’ve blocked it out.” Michôd admits now he wasn’t happy until well into his 30s. “It’s not like I worked out who I was,” he says. “I just found a comfort with not knowing.”

 

The King is in cinemas now, and on Netflix from November 1.

Harry Windsor

Harry Windsor is a critic for The Hollywood Reporter and the former editor of Inside Film.

The King. Courtesy of Netflix

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