Tag Archives: Joel Edgerton

The King – London Film Festival

Timothee Chalamet in The King, Netflix

It’s Shakespeare but not as we know it; in recent years film adaptions of the Bard’s best-known plays have parted from a more-traditional focus on language to explore the psychological experience of the principle character, as well as giving exciting new life to the battles that define the action. Particularly notable, in 2015 Justin Kurzel redefined the Shakespeare adaptation with a powerful and purposeful two-hour Macbeth with some of the most visually beautiful battle scenes seen on film, and brought a dark, massing intensity to the unfolding narrative that is as close to live performance as you can get with a camera. Now, another Australian and his American co-writer have taken an entirely modern approach to Henry V that doesn’t use a single word of Shakespeare’s text.

Sacrilegious is may be, even “blasphemous” as director David Michôd apologetically described it at the opening of The King at the London Film Festival, but it works. The Henriad Trilogy has been tackled many times on screen with looming version of Henry V by Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh, plus a respectable BBC version of all three plays with Tom Hiddleston as part of The Hollow Crown series. And on stage the list gets even longer with celebrated performances from Jamie Parker at the The Globe, Alex Hassell for the RSC and a well reviewed Michael Grandage production with Jude Law, all in recent years – the one thing we’re never short of is Henrys.

But these were all distinctly British in their outlook – regardless of the media, this has always been a British story told by British actors within the British theatre, film and television industry. Fascinating then to see a version of this most English (and Welsh) of medieval heroes translated and reflected back to us by our Antipodean and Atlantic cousins. The result is an entirely new screenplay by Michôd and Joel Edgerton that respectfully uses the architecture of Shakespeare’s play but refocuses the overarching narrative to consider the delicate political balance of a new ruler and the weight of shoring-up a new crown in a precarious international environment of betrayal, manipulation and intrigue.

There is both a sense of freedom in Michôd and Edgerton’s film that allows the characters to breath away from the wonderful but nonetheless precise confinement of Shakespeare’s language, and a rare opportunity to delve deeper into the play as well as adding a new spin to some of the characters and scenarios that allow the actors to build their roles more conclusively without the shadow of all those stage Falstaffs, Dauphins and Henrys. There is an energy in the film that suggests a sense of thoughts unfolding naturally and spontaneously before us, and of cause and effect in a movie where all actions and decisions have visible consequences for everyone else.

The departures from and elaborations on Shakespeare’s story are some of The King’s most engaging and memorable aspects; the treachery subplot given only one angry revelation scene in Henry V is expanded, drawing attention to the close council of men around the new king to explore the depth of the betrayal. And, interestingly, this is depicted as part of a longer campaign by the French Dauphin to goad the fledgling English monarch into a costly war that he cannot win.

In this way, Michôd and Edgerton also suggest a far stronger sense of the political machinations at work in the new court as the older counsellors – who served his father – seek to shape the reign of Henry V with their own anti-French, pro-war agenda. These are additions that later set the monarch on a post-war collision course with those who shaped his mind and is a welcome and well-considered opening-out of Shakespeare’s story that shifts the central narrative on its axis to offer a new and intriguing perspective.

Similar adjustments also provide an alternative view of Henry’s approach to monarchy and diplomatic relations that add depth to the characterisation; the famous tennis balls scene which stokes Henry’s ire and shows his underlying belligerence is here reframed so he dismisses the gesture, refusing to summon-up the uncontained response the Dauphin requires, and nor is this Henry convinced by the complex Salic Law discussion that should place him on the French throne, amusingly calling-out its confusion and actively rejecting his own claim.

Alongside a more purposeful concept of the Dauphin’s attempts to provoke Henry into a war he never wanted-  rather than the dynastic quest to feed his own ambition which Shakespeare implies – there is an idea of events being outside Henry’s control, almost of a pacifist forced into fighting against his better judgement. We see this particularly in the early civil war scene as the then Prince Hal stops his younger brother’s army taking on Hotspur’s rebellion by challenging Percy to single combat in lieu of a fuller fight. War to this character is a last resort and not a light undertaking. Watching Henry navigate his reluctant kingship is one of the film’s most enjoyable and inventive aspects.

The other major alteration which may ruffle Shakespearean purists is the inclusion of Sir John Falstaff in England’s warring party, in fact the portly and drunken companion of the Henriad Trilogy and beyond is entirely revised to instead become a war hero and chief strategist during the invasion of France, encouraging the king to practice restraint where other counsellors want rash action. With Edgerton playing the role himself, naturally Falstaff becomes far more heroic than previously seen, dispensing sage and fatherly advice. During these sections of the film the creators momentarily forget that it was Henry’s perspective the audience was following and put Falstaff centre stage instead, but it is an interpretation that works pretty well in the context of the story they are telling, and pleasingly makes us look afresh at this vital relationship between the two men.

As Prince Hal / Henry V Timothée Chalamet pitches his performance pretty well, right down to the really very good English accent. He may not be an obvious choice for the warrior king among the more strapping Henrys of the stage but his slight frame and very youthful look fit extremely well into an adaptation that emphasises inexperience and naivety. And Chalamet offers plenty of both, along with a disdain for his father and the duplicity of the courts that provides valuable context for Henry’s different approach to kingship that becomes a key motivational driver throughout.

He is less convincing as the drunken wastrel Prince Hal in the early part of the movie – although the paternal resentment and familial strife are credible enough – but as Henry grows in stature as a king so too does Chalamet’s performance, eliciting the maturing of his mind as Henry finds the statesmanship and inner mettle needed to inspire his soldiers while keeping his advisers in check. The most wonderful aspect of Henry V are those in which the man weighs-up the conflicted concepts of individual and state, and here Chalamet garners all that psychological complexity in an affecting performance that stands-up well against all those who have come before.

Joel Edgerton adopts a variable northern accent as Falstaff but grounds the character with a more restrained interpretation than often seen. Good and loyal friend to Prince Hal, Falstaff’s considerable war experience and tactical expertise prove decisive, and Edgerton clearly enjoys the the strategic scenes in which his character bests the well-born men around the king. But Falstaff is also Henry’s constant reminder of reality, that war is costly and unpleasant for those who have to fight it and not an enterprise to be treated lightly – one of the film’s major themes. There may be some who dislike this approach to Falstaff, but if Shakespeare can create fictional characters from real people, then his own fictitious creations can also find new life and rescued reputation in a different kind of story.

Robert Pattinson stands out in a skilled supporting cast, providing the film’s relatively few laughs as the ego maniacal Dauphin whose arrogance precipitates his own downfall but not before some entertaining exchanges with Chalamet. Sean Harris is also notable as chief adviser William who quickly becomes a pragmatic guide for the young king whose subtle actions belie the mighty power that William ultimately wields – a presence that becomes increasingly important as events take their course.

Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw and Michôd make us wait as Shakespeare does for Agincourt and The King is primarily a film about preparation, but it well conjures the messy reality of medieval fighting, of masses of grey armored knights with visors obscuring their faces becoming increasingly embroiled in the mud as they fight in unpleasant conditions. There is a small nod here to the rain-soaked battlegrounds of the First World War, a hint about the universal awfulness of combat for those left to fight wars not of their making. This isn’t quite the version of Henry V that we know but Michôd and Edgerton’s film is a fresh and psychologically compelling retelling. Theatre purists might not approve but The King has a life of its own, one that honours Shakespeare’s text while creating something entirely new.

The King is released on Netflix on 1 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   

A version of this review was posted on The Reviews Hub website.


Black Mass – London Film Festival

Depp

The gangster flick is one of cinemas oldest genres with its origins in the film noirs of the 1930s and 40s which set the template for many of the films we know today. Films like The Big Sleep, Out of the Past, Key Largo and even Gilda have had a long legacy with their focus on the perpetrators of organised crime in America. Originally reliant on menacing character rather than overt violence, the implication of threat and perhaps a hammy punch or two were all the censors would allow, these films were incredibly moral with the good guys and bad guys getting the right ending.

And in the years since, while the films first became increasingly brutal with often graphic depictions of violence (think Scarface, Goodfellas or even Reservoir Dogs), they have graduated to presenting the gangster as a glamorous figure living in a world of power and respect, which recent films like Legend have done much to perpetuate. How refreshing then that Scott Cooper’s new film Black Mass which received its UK premiere at the London Film Festival this week may signal a return to depicting this world as grim, dangerous and non-aspirational, punctuated with moments of alarming violence that seem a far cry from the arty portrayals of recent years.

The story is a true one, that of the American gangster Jimmy ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Johnny Depp) whose growing dominance of Boston is depicted in three key stages in the 1970s and 80s, during which time he developed an ‘alliance’ with the FBI, nominally as an informant but actually in extracting information from the Bureau to neutralise his competitors. Bulger managed this through his relationship with John Connolly who grew up together in The Projects choosing different sides of the law. But when Connolly approached Bulger to work with the FBI to bring down the Mafia, it opened up a new world of prosperity and unchallenged dominance for both of them. Running alongside this, although not fully explored, is Bulger’s relationship with his Senator brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) who has a clear affection for his sibling if an ambiguous knowledge of his criminal activities. So Black Mass as well a biography is the story of the blurred boundary between crime and law enforcement where the allure of power and loyalty is far from black and white.

Coming to this with virtually no knowledge of Bulger it’s episodic style takes a little while to get into the story and piece things together, but you’re very quickly drawn into the this excellent no-frills gangster movie. It success comes through the intriguing characters that keep you engrossed as the sense of danger ebbs and flows throughout. Central to this story is actually Connolly (Joel Edgerton), Bulger’s childhood friend who returns to the neighbourhood as an FBI agent and hopes to use that relationship to entrap bigger criminals with information Bulger can supply on their activities. What transpires is much more interesting than a straightforward story of gangster-tuned-nark and it is Connolly who becomes attracted to and embroiled in Bulger’s affairs while simultaneously protecting him from his FBI colleagues. This is where Edgerton’s performance is particularly effective – this portrayal of a man whose head is turned by the excitement of the gangster’s world and the sense of complacent respect it gives him. You see him frequently walking into the FBI offices as though his is untouchable and fobbing his colleagues off to keep them at bay while he manipulates the ’intel’ he supposedly receives from his friend. In a key moment his increasingly fearful wife notes that he’s wearing a new suit and his stance has changed to a swagger, showing how he’s morphing into one of Bulger’s henchmen. Later in the film as the net closes in, Edgerton is also very good at portraying the desperation and fear that his web of deceit has created.

One of the great things about a film festival is how often you see work where actors have upped their game. I recently noted that Helena Bonham Carter had given her best performance in years in Suffragette and here her regular Burton-film collaborator Johnny Depp does the same as Bulger. Like Bonham Carter, it’s nice to see Depp in a straight acting role, no gimmicks, no quirks, no ticks, just a pure performance and it’s a great reminder of what he’s capable of. His Bulger is a constant seething presence in this film, almost always restrained, totally controlled so when he does lose his temper it’s terrifying. There are lots of classic gangster tropes to navigate – relationship with mum (see also Legend), relationship with son, volatile relationship with wife and beloved by the community that he protects by helping old ladies across the road with their shopping (again see Legend) – but Depp takes all of that and still makes you believe that his Bulger is a ruthless killer and convincing leader of a crime empire.

There’s good additional support for a host of famous faces including Kevin Bacon as Connolly’s FBI boss whose suspicions of Bulger increase as time goes on, as well as actors you’ll recognise from House of Cards and The Newsroom. In a small but interesting role Benedict Cumberbatch plays Billy Bulger a local Senator who has an affectionate relationship with his brother and is one that retains a significant degree of ambiguity. With both men still alive it’s clearly difficult to imply that a former Senator would have knowledge or even engagement with criminal activities, but while Cumberbatch gives a good performance as the authority figure / family man, it does seem a shame that such a fascinating avenue remains unexplored – particularly as two brothers chose such completely different paths. It would also have added a stronger leg to the gangster-FBI-politician triangle which implies a level of corruption allowing all three to prosper.

Those tiny caveats aside this is an excellent film and one that successfully manages to convey just how grim that time was – Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography and the design decisions almost make this look as though it was filmed in the 70s and 80s. Best of all, it never looks glamorous which seems to be a departure from the usual style of modern gangster movies making this actually much grittier and believable because of it. It’s certainly a far cry from Legend (which admittedly had a slightly different agenda), and in fact has more in common with the look and feel of A Most Wanted Man Anton Corbijn’s similarly grainy adaption of John le Carre’s novel staring Rachel McAdam and Philip Seymore Hoffman. Black Mass is a great addition to the gangster film collection, packed with fantastic performances and a thoroughly engrossing story. Even the concluding notes will leave you with plenty of questions about the nature of corruption and justice. And who knows, this may signal a turning point in the presentation of gangster violence on screen ushering in a bleaker style that more accurately reflects the threat of that world.

Black Mass was shown at the London Film Festival. It opens nationwide on 27 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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