MASTERPIECE successfully adapts Mike Bartlett’s Tony-nominated play King Charles III. The late Tim Pigott-Smith excels as the titular future king.
This one feels like catnip to me. You should know that I’m obsessed with the Royal Family. And not the Princess Diana drama, mind you. I’m obsessed with the pageantry of it all. The decorum. The history and the legacy. The power of the crown. I find it all completely compelling. So, it’s fortuitous that, in an Emmy year that includes Queen Elizabeth II’s ascension in Netflix’s The Crown, Masterpiece’s King Charles III depicts the events following her death. And some nasty events they are.
Fortunately, nasty events make for great drama.
The late Tim Pigott-Smith stars as Charles whose rule immediately begins as the Queen is laid to rest. Charles immediately feels prickly, well-intended and efficient but decidedly not a man of the people. Prince William (Oliver Chris) and Kate (Charlotte Riley) wait supportively in the wings. Prince Harry (Richard Goulding) struggles with the royal mantle. Yes, King Charles III is essentially speculative fiction, but it’s roots are grounded in reality. Writer Mike Bartlett realizes these characters in a fictional circumstance, but they largely behave as we always imagined they would. If you imagine such things as I do.
Ironically, the controversial events that kick-start the film feel so completely relevant to an American audience. Prime Minister Tristan Evans (Adam James) presents Charles with a bill that essentially restricts freedom of the press. Charles bristles, asking for modifications before providing his royal assent, but Evans refuses, setting into motion a stand-off that threatens to topple the monarchy. The film echoes the Trump administration’s attempts to control the media, something frighteningly unexpected for material written in 2014.
What makes it great
King Charles III obviously has roots in the theater, and director Rupert Goold stages his original production in claustrophobic, haunting interiors. Still, the material calls for the treatment. Rather than open up with artificial excursions, Goold smartly chooses to insulate Charles. In fact, the only real exterior shots involve Harry’s life outside palace walls. Charles, in turn, must suffocate as he navigates modern politics. In fact, the claustrophobia helps ease the audience into two scenes involving the ghost of Princess Diana, one of the play’s more controversial choices.
Performance-wise, the film belongs to Tim Pigott-Smith, who draws Charles as a natural descendent of his mother. Without her warmth. His Charles feels beset by paranoia and duty, a sense of honor and a sense of right and wrong. He emerges as a man dedicated to duty who does have his public’s best intentions at heart but is unable to convey the warmth of his son, William. King Charles becomes trapped by inexperience (he hasn’t witnessed the same greatness as his mother) and by expectations. We’ve all heard the “skip Charles and go to William” logic. This King Charles is haunted by that.
Masterpiece’s King Charles III delivers a brilliantly acted film that feels like history but exists entirely in the future tense. The real hero of the piece is the brilliant script by original playwright Mike Bartlett. Written in Shakespearean blank verse, the language inspires obsessive love. It, as in Shakespearean plays, allows you to know the inner thoughts of the characters and, most importantly, their intentions. If only the film were longer, more inclusive of the original material… At a slim 90 minutes, King Charles III more than delivers the goods, but as much as I admired it, it left me wanting more character development beyond Charles. Still, the film emerges as a tough Emmy contender for TV Movie, and Pigott-Smith would emerge at the top of a thick field of Limited Series/TV Movie actor contenders if left to me.
His too-soon passing lends an infinite air of sadness to the material, an added layer of depth to already fruitful material.
God save the King.
MASTERPIECE’s King Charles III airs Sunday night at 9pm ET. Check local MASTERPIECE on PBS listings.