Once More Unto The Breach: Netflix’s The King Takes On Shakespeare’s Henry Plays

The King: Steven Elder, Timothée Chalamet, Sean Harris

David Michod is the latest director to take on William Shakespeare’s Henriad plays (King Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and King Henry V), with his Netflix original movie The King. The film stars Timothee Chalamet in the title role. Robert Pattinson, and Joel Edgerton (who co-wrote the screenplay) co-star. These plays have attracted some of the greatest directors and actors of the last century in the past, including Sir Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles, Kenneth Branagh, and most recently a series produced for the BBC and PBS starring Tom Hiddleston.

King Henry V stands in front of his army.
Credit: Netflix

Review Of The King

At two hours and twenty minutes, The King is not a film you throw on in the background while you do other things. Thankfully, it doesn’t feel that long. The pacing early on is brisk, and the later parts of the film revel in the details of the military campaign in France. Unlike many period-set films, The King is not overwrought or bloated. The dialogue was clearly chosen thoughtfully, as no character meanders on at length.

Condensing three plays’ worth of material into one film is a tough endeavor. The King does it by mostly doing away with Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 and focusing mostly on Henry V. This works to the film’s benefit as Timothee Chalamet does great work embodying the reluctant Warrior King Henry V, but feels a little strained in his portrayal of the capricious Prince Hal. Chalamet is able to develop Henry V from overwhelmed-but-thoughtful pacifist king to leading his troops in the charge of battle. It’s no small feat considering the actor is only 23 years old.

Robert Pattinson as The Dauphin sits on a throne in front of his army.
Credit: Netflix

The supporting cast is equally good. Strong moments are given to Edgerton’s Falstaff, Sean Harris’ William Gascoigne, and Lilly-Rose Depp’s Catherine. It is, surprisingly, Robert Pattinson, however, who steals the show as Dauphin, King Henry V’s nemesis. Pattinson gleefully plays up every taunt he throws out and brings a much-needed levity to the film. We also get to gleefully watch as he gets his comeuppance in the end.

The King Shows The Grittiness Of Battle

Particularly notable are the staging, production design, and editing of the climactic battle sequence at Agincourt. Muddy and claustrophobic, this battle has a visceral feel to it. Despite the gruesome violence, it is hard to turn away. The tension rises as you watch and hope that it will play out the way Falstaff has predicted. Moments of elation are felt when the king charges into the fray and comes out victorious. Considering the challenges of filming a battle scene in a new way, this scene is masterful in its execution.

King Henry V stands muddied in front of his troops after battle.
Credit: Netflix

The film also attempts to downplay the traditional “Rah! Rah! Britannia!” spirit that many who approach this material use. This may be the only real place the film falters. In the end, despite being victorious, the king is questioned by his new bride, Princess Catherine of France, about his motivation for the military campaign. In doing so, the film appears to be attempting to make a statement about toxic masculinity or the foolish way men rush into war for valor. It’s a little unclear and a little muddled.

The King As An Adaptation

As an adaptation of Shakespeare, The King doesn’t quite hit the mark. The major players are all present, as are many of the important plot points. Despite this, the film never quite finds the balance between drama and humor that the plays so masterfully perfect. In fact, much of the comedy is taken out completely, leaving the film feeling a little dour.

Prince Hal’s motivation for slumming it among the peasants is also altered slightly. In Shakespeare’s version, Hal gives a soliloquy early on stating that his plan is to make the peasants believe he is one of them and to make his transformation into a respectable king something more impressive to the nobleman. This should, in theory, foster a kind of reverence and peace among both groups. Here, Hal’s motivation is as an extreme pacifist opposed to his father’s warmongering ways.

King Henry V stands in a field at sunset.
Credit: Netflix

While this may seem like a small change, it has a ripple effect that means losing some of the most poignant scenes from the plays. This includes possibly one of the most quoted lines in all of Shakespeare: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!” during the battle at Harfleur.

While it was impossible to expect that this speech would appear in this film, as the language was updated, the battle is turned into a siege to fit with the character’s new motivations. Unfortunately, this leaves the British troops waiting patiently as they firebomb the French city, which lacks both the momentum and excitement of the original scene.

Additionally, the confrontation and reconciliation between father and son as King Henry IV is dying (one of the most emotional and dramatic scenes in the plays), is sadly left out, leaving the excellent Ben Mendelsohn with very little to do.

Banish All The World, But Don’t Banish John Falstaff…

Nowhere is this adaptational change felt more distinctly than in the character of Sir John Falstaff. Rumor has it that Falstaff was Queen Elizabeth’s favorite character in all of Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare even wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor as a feature for the character on the Queen’s request. Likewise, many of the director-actors who have taken on these plays have either cast themselves as Prince Hal/King Henry V, or as Falstaff.

Shakespeare envisioned Falstaff as a wayward former knight who is a corrupt, jolly, scoundrel. He takes bribes from men who don’t want to enlist, spends his days drinking, and boastfully lies about his exploits. Purposefully described as being fat, he seems to be the polar opposite of a good knight. Despite this, he has a strong wit and lust for life that appeals to Prince Hal. He is a father figure to the prince not because he is presented as kind and responsible, but because he helps demonstrate how to shrug off custom and expected behavior and to find the pleasure in life.

Sir John Falstaff sits in a tent among other advisers to the King.
Credit: Netflix

It is interesting that Joel Edgerton wrote himself into the role of Falstaff while changing so much of the character. In this version, Falstaff is calm, respectable, and in many ways responsible. He teaches Prince Hal lessons about the importance of respecting his father (King Henry IV) and helps him through a tough period after Hal’s first battle. Later, he becomes a trusted military adviser after Hal ascends to the throne as King Henry V. While Edgerton’s Falstaff fits perfectly within this version of the story, it causes us to miss out on one of the most emotional scenes from the story: Hal’s public rejection of his former friend once he becomes king.

Does It Hold Up To The Original?

Despite this re-working of the material, The King is highly entertaining. The cast is strong all the way around and this version of the story is well-told. Shakespeare fans might be a little disappointed or befuddled by some of the changes (particularly to the character of Falstaff).

Timothee Chalamet as King Henry V, sits on a throne in robes and holding a scepter.
Credit: Netflix

However, Netflix has made a film that should be easy to follow, even if you’re not a fan of Shakespeare. Those looking for a period-piece about how hard it is to be king could do worse than turning here. I may not hail The King, as the trailer suggests, but I do give it my respect for taking on and succeeding, in telling this story one more time.

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