Anyone with a keen interest in this site (and there are so many!) knows that I loves me a bit of Shakespeare, and I loves me a bit of Henry V, the Bard’s closest equivalent to a stage-set action romp, or a gristly anti-war production depending on who exactly is directing. More than once on this blog I have quoted that sweet opening line: “O, for a muse of fire to ascend the brightest heaven of invention”. I devour whatever “Henriad” material comes my way, either through productions or adaptations, like the recent The Hollow Crown stuff from the BBC.
And now Netflix have got in on the act, sort of. Their The King certainly is an adaptation of the first Henriad, insofar as it follows the course of that story and includes Shakespearean characters like Falstaff. But, as promotional material made clear enough without it ever being set out formally by the streamer, it was not going to be using Shakespeare’s language. So, I was in two minds: this 150 minute behemoth had a great looking cast and an epic story of one of literature’s greatest warrior-kings matched with one of its greatest roguish scoundrels. But it also smelled a little bit like just the latest in a long line of “for the Game of Thrones generation” affairs, that might emphasise blood, guts, betrayal and sex over character, story, commentary on war and higher political machinations. Which side of the coin did director David Michod, who I last commented upon with his disappointing War Machine, and on whose head lay heavy the crown on this occasion, come down on with The King?
Ailing King of England Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn) prepares for death. He is beset by rebellions all around and an unclear succession, owing to the drunken revelry of seemingly worthless eldest son Hal (Timothee Chalamet) who would rather carouse with naer-do-well war veteran Falstaff (Joel Edgerton) than act like the Prince of Wales. When his father dies, Hal is forced to become Henry V, and must face, ill-prepared, into the task of re-uniting his nation and confronting the belligerence of France, and its arrogant Dauphin (Robert Pattinson).
It is fair to say that elements of The King are very much in the mold of “This ain’t your mama’s Henriad!” (I feel like I’m spotting this trend all the time now). It’s moody, it’s dark, it’s about court politics and the point or pointlessness of war as a form of statecraft. It does the heretical, and radically alters aspects of Shakespeare’s story, beyond abandoning his prose. And yet, despite all of these things that, pre-viewing, would have constituted red flags for me, I still found myself very much enjoying The King, maybe because of those changes, that transformed in my mind from dreaded, and into the realm of daring.
There are two main things to talk about really. Henry V, and to an extent the larger Henriad, has always pivoted in its depictions on the approach to war: whether it is something to be gloried in like Laurence Oliver showcased, or something to be abhorred and struggled through like Kenneth Branagh showed. Michod decides to err more towards the latter, but with the interesting wrinkle of making Hal the reluctant warrior, one who states bluntly that he see’s little point in warfare as a means of policy.
The film’s opening act, taking in the latter half of Henry IV, Part 1, revolves around presenting Hal as this man, who thinks his despotic fathers constant need to provoke and fight rebellions to be idiocy (No “I shall hereafter, my thrice gracious lord,
Be more myself” for this Hal). Aside from drinking copiously (he refuses to even answer court summons’ owing to inebriation), he engages Hotspur (Tom Glynn-Carney, last seen in Tolkien) in single combat to avoid a larger death count that a battle would bring, and upbraids his younger brother for thinking such warfare necessary. But the Henriad has its ultimate destination of Agincourt, therefore The King is an elongated character study in that way, examining how we turn from the apparently peaceful Hal to the man who straightforwardly orders the French prisoners to be butchered after that battle. Effectively, how does Henry V become Henry IV?
At all points Chalamet is effective, if perhaps a bit too understated. The King constitutes his first big budget lead role following his impressive showing in a string of smaller, but arguably more affecting, affairs. His Hal is never quite rambunctious enough to be the drunken lout other characters treat him as, and later never forceful enough to fully be the King the director wants you to view him as. He lacks Oliver’s drama, Branagh’s dignity, or Hiddleston’s charm. But he bring other things to the table. He is at his best in more personable moments, conversing with Falstaff, his sister (Thomasin McKenzie, doing good work in her two scenes), or his future wife, giving an air of quiet reserve and thoughtfulness, or in those public moments when he can be observed to be forcing a diplomatic smile or joke, playing the part of a monarch he really doesn’t want. His expressions are minute but forceful, as he tries to work things out in this aggrandized coming-of-age tale.
The influences that turn beatnik Hal into war criminal Henry are gradual, a slow corruption where he is coerced into becoming the warrior-King many require him to be, for their own reasons. Henry does not go willingly to France, insisting at first that he will be a conciliatory and peaceful King. A mixture of court politics, flattery, odes to duty, insult and insistence on military necessity are what does it: Michod is undoubtedly making some commentary on fake news and controlling of narratives as a means of influence, and how those in power are oft turned by poison whispered in the ear.
In that regard Sean Harris’ Chief Justice might as well be named Dominic Cummings; indeed, the general narrative of self-interested elites pushing England into an aggressive and populist showdown with Europe, only to be revealed as lying about the motivations for doing so, has obvious overtones. In the end, after the battle is won and the lives counted, Henry is left attempting to pathetically explain to future wife Catherine that the entire affair started with a gift of tennis balls meant as an insult: she’s not impressed that he has proven to be so easily riled, and we will remember that Henry was not actually all that insulted until others told him to be.
I suppose The King asks whether a leader can commit to the butchery of Agincourt and still come out of it a good man, as well as presenting the idea that, as Ron Perlman put it, war never changes, and nor do the reasons for war. There will always be individuals who will benefit from the bloodshed, and the hardest lesson for Henry V to learn is that those closest to him may be those people. Disillusionment with power and toxic masculine posturing (its notable that the few female characters – like Catherine, or Henry’s sister Philippa – collectively lobby for common sense and restraint in different ways) are the order of the day, seen repeatedly between the angry denouncement of Henry IV by Hotspur in the film’s opening scenes, and Henry V’s final bloody acceptance of how he has been led by the nose into a fight he did not want.
There to aid in the righteous cause is Joel Edgerton’s Falstaff. Edgerton actually played the title role on the stage as a younger man, and must have relished the opportunity to play the iconic Falstaff, especially a version that dares to stray as far as it does from Shakespeare’s icon. Falstaff on the stage is a unrepentant criminal, parasite and coward: a man of great wit and personality, but with few truly redeeming qualities. The King’s Falstaff, played with great poise and vigour of Edgerton, may be a criminal, but he’s no coward and no parasite: he is, instead, a scarred veteran of campaigns who values Hal as a friend, and not entirely as a leg-up to greater things.
The King diverts much from the source materials by having Falstaff accompany Henry to France as a key adviser, where Edgerton acts as the better angel of his liege’s nature, recommending mercy and putting himself at the forefront of his own martial suggestions. Chalamet and Edgerton showcase the film’s best relationship when on-screen together. The dynamic is still equal parts friendly and rancorous depending on the exact moment, but does find something very special and watchable in how the Falstaff who wishes to never return to a battlefield – not out of cowardice, but weighted memory of what happens there – is the balancing point on the scale opposite those who want Henry to be more like his bloodthirsty father.
There is much else to enjoy about The King, not least “R Patz” and his scene-stealing turn as the French Dauphin, an easy-to-hate arrogant blowhard who confidently outlines how much he will enjoy butchering Henry’s army, and flies into a rage when the English King dares to defy him. He does so with an incredible choice of accent that makes it seem as if Pattinson researched his role by watching Allo Allo. Among other things, this includes him complementing Henry on his “beeg balls” in coming to France, but positing at that same moment that the English King’s rashness means he has “a tineey leetul cock”. If he wasn’t so murderous, he’d be a clown, but the Dauphin, through Patterson, has enough of an edge that he comes across as equal parts amusing and frightening, something in the Ledger school I suppose.
Mendelsohn as a bitter Henry IV, Sean Harris as the scheming Chief Justice, Glynn-Carney as a Hotspur who has simply had enough of terrible leadership and Lily-Rose Depp as an adept and observant Catherine all light up the screen in their scenes, even if they grab the camera for only a few minutes each. Despite the epic running time, The King never really feels slow or badly paced, a testament to the power of the individual scenes and the appropriate placement of its few battle re-creations. Neither blood, nor sex nor profanity is over indulged here, despite my fears, leaving The King closer to Shakespeare than Martin. And abandoning the Bard’s words does not diminish what Michod and Edgerton, co-writers, are trying to accomplish: there may not be “a muse of fire” to invoke or a “Cry God for Harry” to scream or even a “We few, we happy few” to pronounce before Agincourt, but The King manages to imitate those moments passably using more down to Earth language that you don’t need cliff notes to understand.
Michod, with Adam Arkapaw beside him, directs an undoubtedly gloomy production, where cloudy visages are muck-racked streets are the usual backdrops. It bears more than a passing similarity to Arkapaw’s work on Macbethin 2015: there is a sparseness evident, even in throne rooms, where the biggest sign of elitism is the robes Henry is called upon to wear, swiftly cast off in favour of heavy armour. Instead of any of that, Michod obviously prefers people, with his costume and hair departments working overtime to craft visually engaging principals, who all stand out in different ways. Something as simple as ragged hair signifying negativity is used to the full, in the form of Mendelsohn’s dying Henry IV, shown truly as a wreck of a man, or in the loutish Hal while neater hair signifies confidence and leadership: in Hotspur, in the Dauphin, or in the later Henry, who deliberately appears to mirror Hotspur (Henry IV even muses, after witnessing Hotspur’s defiance, “If only he were my son”). The individual characters all “pop” in their own ways, and that is important in an otherwise grey-cast production.
The film’s depiction of battle errs more towards the Branagh school, and also calls to mind David MacKenzie’s Outlaw King from late last year: to quote Johnny Cash, there will be much “kicking and a gouging in the mud and the blood”. Battle is far from glorious, shown more as a relentless and desperate slog: on more than one occasion we see men in armour literally drowning in mud, and Agincourt is a confusing mass of pushing and shoving broken up by a few shots of longbowmen mowing down the advancing French cavalry. Michod clearly has little respect for the idea of battle to be a glorious affair, or even the oft-sanctified on-screen single combat: when Hal and Hotspur go at it it’s more UFC attrition than daring-do, and the Dauphin’s final stand is taken as an opportunity to, almost literally, cut the legs out from the concept of chivalrous contests between rival warriors. At the conclusion, Henry surveys the battlefield, walking through it in a brief microchasm of Branagh’s more famous walk past the destruction, but in truth the deadliest contests of his story take place in those dimly lit palace rooms.
I enjoyed The King a lot. It features some fine performances, and tells an at times thrilling and at times considered version of the Henriad story. It makes risky decisions with its depiction of Henry as a tool of others, and with Falstaff as a more outwardly heroic character than Shakespeare envisioned him as, but this risk works out wonderfully. They make The King seem fresh and new, no small feat for a story that is 800 years old. And while it addresses familiar themes in its depiction of Hal/Henry, The King still manages to be thought provoking in how it approaches the morality of war and the uncertain ground of leadership. This is the exact kind of film that Netflix should be financing, the kind of historical epic that might struggle to make it onto big screens nowadays. And it’s an impressive addition to the canon of Shakespearean adaptions. It may not be the brightest heaven of invention, but the muse of fire did just fine. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).