Netflix’s art house take on Shakespeare’s Henry plays features an all-star cast & a sumptuous production.
While Shakespeare reigns as one of the most adapted writers of all time, there is a certain hierarchy of which of his plays are adapted. While crowd favorites like Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth and Hamlet have scores of adaptations the average movie viewer could rattle off (such as West Side Story and The Lion King for example), the historical plays are less well known. For the Henry plays, the only notable retelling is Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, and that was more art house fare. Netflix is breathing new life into the bard’s take on Henry V in the period piece The King, directed by David Michôd (The Rover, War Machine). Adapting an amalgamation of Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 and Henry V, Michôd explores the young king’s struggle with power and responsibility.
The King opens by plunging the viewer into the civil wars of the British Isles in the 15th Century. King Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn) is fighting to bring both Scotland and Wales under English rule, and the land is in chaos. With his health failing, Henry IV disinherits his eldest son Henry (Timothée Chalamet), nicknamed Hal, in favor of his second eldest Thomas (Dean-Charles Chapman). Hal had abandoned the royal life years prior, choosing instead to drink and carouse with a retired knight, Sir John Falstaff (Joel Edgerton, who co-wrote the film with Michôd).
After Henry IV succumbs to illness, Thomas dies in the war his father started, forcing Hal to take the throne. Hal’s primary goal is to bring peace to a divided land, which he rather quickly achieves. However, after a mocking coronation gift and assassination attempt from King Charles of France and his son, Louis the Dauphin (Robert Pattinson), he begins the English conquest of France. Throughout, Hal struggles with the responsibility of power, and his desire to keep his people’s blood from being shed in vain.
The King focuses on the way in which powerful people’s personal drama can move armies, and cause the death of thousands of common people. When Hal and King Charles of France finally meet at the end, Charles remarks “that the great movements of history so frequently find their origins in the minutia of family.” An early inciting incident in the film is Henry IV’s refusal to ransom the cousin of Henry Percy, causing Percy to rebel against the king in turn. Hal is drawn into the conflict to protect Thomas and his fellow Englishmen by battling Percy one-on-one.
Hal manages to best Percy, but rather than be grateful for avoiding a potentially costly battle, Thomas is angry that Hal upstaged him and stole his glory. This highlights the difference between Hal and the other nobles: Henry sees the king as an extension of country rather than the country as the extension of the king. The scene also gives Chapman a chance to shine on screen, the adolescent petulance at his perceived slight seems to make Thomas an extension of Tommen, the boy king he played on Game of Thrones.
Michôd takes the weighty themes to heart with his filmmaking. The film’s color palette tends to stay muted, and he employs a large amount of chiaroscuro, giving the scenery an air of realism depicting a world lit by candles and torchlight. The result is moody and somber, but nonetheless beautiful. Michôd isn’t afraid to let the camera linger on long landscape shots, and the period costumes and sets are sumptuous. The mise en scene is reminiscent of a Caravaggio painting. Likewise, war is not made to be a glorious affair, but messy and brutal.
Chalamet’s performance in The King cements the acting chops he demonstrated in Call Me By Your Name.
In the aforementioned duel between Percy and Henry, both knights are awkward rather than graceful. The two roll on the ground, beating each other with fists, and Henry’s victory seems a matter of luck rather than skill. A later battle depicts the siege of a French garrison, using trebuchets to hurl flaming projectiles at the castle. While giving one of the most beautiful shots in the movie, of flames soaring through the sky, we are shown that battle is not quick. It’s a refreshingly real depiction of medieval warfare.
The actors’ portrayal of the characters is similarly weighty to match the cinematography. Chalamet’s Henry V is a brooding philosopher, with a detached persona. It’s reminiscent of Keanu Reeves’ portrayal of Scott Favor (the Henry V analog) in My Own Private Idaho. While Reeve’s Scott never lets go of his cool demeanor, Chalamet’s Hal, on the other hand, seems to have emotion bubbling under his stoic exterior. While attempting to appear wise beyond his years, we are given glimpses of the sullen young man Hal is, especially in his interactions with Falstaff, the one character Hal lets his guard down around. Throughout the film, Hal rises to his unwanted position at king, but we are constantly reminded that he is basically still a child. Chalamet’s performance in The King cements the acting chops he demonstrated in Call Me By Your Name.
The film lacks a true comic relief character, which is a staple in Shakespeare’s work, even the histories and tragedies. Falstaff provides an occasional chuckle from a witty remark, but this is mostly in the early stages of the film prior to Henry’s ascension to the throne. In a departure from the source material, rather than abandon Falstaff, Henry recruits him to be a military advisor. Prior to this promotion, Falstaff is jovial, but like the young king he serves, Falstaff broods while pondering the battlefield.
The one standout from sober performances is Pattinson’s broad portrayal of the Dauphin, which verges on camp. Pattinson’s physical presence gives the character a powerful air, but he affects a stereotypical French accent and mannerisms. He stands out from the rest of the film as incongruous. Chalamet speaks fluent French, and prior interactions with French characters were in French, so the interactions in English with the Dauphin seemed wildly out of place.
The King seems like Netflix attempting to cater to the art-house crowd. While the platform has garnered much critical acclaim for its TV series, its films have had a more negative critical reaction (think Bright or the Adam Sandler movies). The film itself seems to assume the audience has familiarity with either Shakespeare’s plays or the historical setting, as little background is given through exposition (again, making it less appealing to the general public). That said, the combination of excellent acting and filmmaking will make this an appealing watch for its niche of viewers. I’m sure Netflix’s algorithms have already figured out who to recommend it to.
The King ascends its throne on Netflix November 1st.