I like Shakespeare. Many people don’t. Many college students especially don’t, and that’s understandable. The guy wrote his plays so that the language was impossible to follow and made the performances themselves last entire days. But I like him.
I’ve read many Shakespeare plays for a variety of classes but have managed to never touch the Henriad. I don’t know if I’ve ever read any of the “histories,” as they’re not the most popular of his works. But when I heard that Netflix was adapting “Henry V” for the screen and Timothee Chalamet (“Call Me By Your Name”) and Robert Pattinson (“Good Time,” “The Lighthouse”), two recent indie darlings, were set to star, I was intrigued. That adaptation is entitled “The King,” and it was released this past weekend.
As I haven’t read the play, I don’t know how much of it is lifted from the pages of the play and how much liberty was taken from that source material. The David Michod (“War Machine”) directed film certainly doesn’t take its dialogue from the source. Shakespeare’s indulgent flowery language and iambic pentameter is nowhere to be found in the two and a half-hour run time, and that was a welcome surprise for me. What “The King” did end up being was a fairly gripping story of a young man learning how to make difficult decisions, featuring just enough solid filmmaking added to elevate it from a good movie to a great one.
The story follows Prince (later King) Henry V (Chalamet) in 15th century England, as he assumes the throne following his father’s death despite not wanting the crown. Shortly after assuming the throne, he attempts to bring peace to England by ending conflicts with Scotland and Wales. With a board of self-interested advisors including William Gascoigne (Sean Harris) and his lifelong friend Falstaff (Joel Edgerton) by his side and a bitter brother rejecting him, Henry sets out to attain peace as king.
That is until an assassin from France makes an attempt on his life, and he feels forced to go to war with the country his father, Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn), always dreamed of conquering. Henry sets out to France where his forces collide with those of The Dauphin (Pattinson), the son of King Charles VI of France (Thibault de Montalembert). The Dauphin is a sadistic, eccentric and border-line deranged violent prince who is furious that Henry has set foot in France. The two then battle it out, deciding the fate of Henry’s England and their newfound war with France.
In many ways, this movie reminded me of Justin Kurzel’s 2015 adaptation of “Macbeth,” starring Michael Fassbender. Both films take an eerie, violent and emotional look at these men who struggle to cope with the power that they assume.
Chalamet, Egerton and Pattinson all stood out for their fantastic performances. Chalamet may not be the type you would expect to play a king, but Henry V is meant to be seen as a boy rising to a position he isn’t yet ready for, and there was a vulnerability and sincerity that Chalamet brought to his performance that perfectly encapsulated that fear.
Egerton played his role as a loyal, gruff knight quite well and I’ve never seen him play that type of role before and thought he did it well. Pattinson doesn’t have a ton of screen time, but the time he does have he controls the scene. I’m not sure exactly how “good” his French accent is, but he brings a sinister, chaotic air onto the screen that is captivating. Plus his long hair is super hot.
Michod and Egerton wrote the script for the film and did a great job modernizing the narrative and dialogue for a current, more casual audience. There were multiple scenes that gave me chills, like Henry’s rousing speech before they head into battle.
The cinematography isn’t anything particularly special for most of the movie. The colors are largely desaturated to create a grim atmosphere, but near the end, during the big battle scene, the color pallet gets brighter and more vibrant.
Between some stellar fight choreography and excellent camera-work, “The King” manages to capture the chaos of war in a deeply disturbing way. Men covered in blood, screaming and flailing, fighting one enemy at a time while utter destruction and bloodshed unfold behind them. It was one of the most gripping scenes I’ve seen a movie this year, and I won’t forget it any time soon.
There was a “twist” near the end of the film that I won’t spoil in case it isn’t in the source material, but I liked it and the ramifications of it a lot. Henry is an undoubtedly different character at the end of this film than he is at the beginning, and in some ways, that’s good and in others it’s bad. The movie is trying to show that not just any man can be a king, and that being a king involves making the hardest choices and trusting what you think is best because you never know who around you is trying to use or deceive you.
For such a grim film, it ends on a relatively happy note and that didn’t upset me. I cared for Henry by then end of this journey and was hopeful that he would go on to be a great king. This is, at the very least, an excellent historical war film, but beyond that is a character study brought to life by excellent performances and a great script. Netflix has another hit on its hands.