The King, the latest project by David Michod (Rover, Animal Kingdom) is going the way of many major films in recent years: following showings at film festivals around the world, it is being released not in cinemas, but through Netflix, which is making its mark in film as well as television series this year, with noteworthy features such as Martin Scorsese’s crime drama The Irishman, and Steven Soderbergh’s recent comedy-drama, The Laundromat, starring Meryl Streep. The King is no less impressive for not being a conventional studio production. The script, co-written by Michod and actor Joel Edgerton, is an adroit blend of historical fact, Shakespearean drama, and modern character study, updated and made accessible to the present-day viewer without becoming anachronistic, and with characters fully developed beyond the level of mere figures from history. It is a grand, thoroughly gripping historical drama.
It is the early 14th century, and the ageing king Henry IV leads a divided nation, waging constant war against dissenting factions. The heir, ‘Hal,’ the future Henry V, has abandoned politics and his royal family in disgust, left the court, and spends his time carousing with his friend and mentor, Sir John Falstaff. Although seen by the court and people as wayward, Hal is portrayed sympathetically as a good but unworldly young man disappointed by government matters, drowning his disenchantment in revelry. The film’s Falstaff is shown less like the classic comical drunkard, and more as a crude and imperfect but valuable father figure and guide to his young friend. The throne is intended for Hal’s more compliant younger brother, Thomas; but Thomas is killed in battle, leaving young Henry to reluctantly accept the throne. The film establishes a basic source of conflict from the outset: King Henry’s dearest wish, and the hope that makes his unwanted position tolerable is to maintain a court without treachery, and a kingdom without division or war. His adventures and England’s, exciting and beautifully enacted in themselves, also chronicle his efforts and his tragic failure in achieving his goals as ruler, and the destruction of his youthful ideals.
The film is visually gorgeous, every detail of the set and costume design chosen to provide maximum impact and realism. Ordinary settings, such as taverns and villages, are carefully lifelike but allowed to provide no more than background; in more significant scenes, the set design is permitted to take the foreground and add to the drama. The new king’s anointing is one of the most effective, portraying the ritual to maximise its significance and beauty, showcasing Henry’s sacrifice, his humility in the face of duty, and the depth of the responsibility he is taking on. The cast also provides a solid foundation and gives the production much of its vigour and appeal, beginning with award-winning actor Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name, Beautiful Boy) in a restrained but moving performance as the young king, reluctant but full of hope and determination, struggling to do his best for the kingdom he genuinely loves. The additional cast are equally well-chosen, including respected stage and screen actor Joel Edgerton in a near-perfect performance as Falstaff; villain-role favourite Ben Mendelsohn as Henry IV; talented newcomer Tom Glynn-Carney (Tolkein, Dunkirk), contemptuous and resentful as Sir Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy; and Robert Pattinson, entertainingly obnoxious as the arrogant and sarcastic Dauphin of France. The dialogue is a perfect blend: familiar enough to be effortlessly clear to the audience, without sounding artificially modernised, and without losing any of the intended grandeur in the more dramatic scenes.
Moving quickly ahead from the coronation, the story focuses on King Henry as intrigues, both domestic and international, threaten to upset the peace that was the new king’s chief goal. Advised to declare war against the French in response to an apparent threat, Henry struggles to make the right choice and is finally driven to the unwelcome conclusion that war must take place. The lengthy scenes of war and preparation for war that follow are some of the most authentic and carefully devised in the film. Details of 14th-century warfare which would not usually occur to the modern non-historian are brought out. The use of the trebuchet to hurl fireballs is an exciting moment, but the film also reveals the tedium and specific dangers of a prolonged siege, the odd rules of warfare and negotiations in place at the time, the strategic disadvantages of full armour, and the possible adverse effects of details as simple as the weather.
The account of the outnumbered English company, their negotiations and desperate strategy, is well told; and the actual battle of Agincourt, shown at lengthy detail, is particularly brilliant. The battle dispenses with the usual film heroics and instead provides a detailed, shockingly realistic portrait of warfare of the era, and, it must be noted, a marvel of crowd scene management. There is little real swordplay, but startling images of men, afoot and on horseback, running at and virtually crashing into the opposing army; shots of chaotic mobs slashing at one another, trying not to trip over the corpses gathering at their feet; and men reduced to rolling in the mud, thrashing at one another. Men die from being trampled, strangled, stabbed, or even, on a battlefield thick with mud and rainwater, by drowning. The battle scenes are both horrible and magnificent, and in terms of plot development, fully justify King Henry’s reluctance to consent to war in the first place, and his dismay at the deadly event, regardless of victory. For this reason, the film makes no attempt to recreate the famous St Crispin’s Day speech in any form: this version of Henry V finds nothing glorious in war, and the film’s portrayal of war as simple butchery justifies his view.
The final act, following the war’s resolution, is quieter but still intense, as the king discovers the many levels of influence and double-dealing running through his court, how easily he has been manipulated, and faces the coming years of mistrust and deception, with virtually no-one he can unreservedly trust left alive. His confrontation with one of his underhanded advisors is a long, tense cat-and-mouse scene that clarifies the situation, while introducing the sadder and wiser king who has emerged from both the war, and the battle at home. All in all, it is a clever reimagining of a well-known story, which finds new layers and presents them in a novel and stirring way.