December 2, 2020, by Peter Kirwan
The King (Netflix/Plan B) @ Netflix
The King clearly sees the potential, in a post-Game of Thrones world, for the story of the Henry IV/Henry V plays to become the basis for a gritty, f-bomb-dropping, twenty-first-century medievalist fantasy of heroism and difficult choices and violence. The material is right there in the corrupt older generation, the sneering enemies, the balance of personal stakes and large-scale conflict, and the movie aesthetic for this genre of film is so well-established that it was probably able to borrow costumes from Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth. But as Brandi Adams has pointed out in an important essay, the film is also built on assumptions around universalism and entitlement that are so easily retrodden and recycled. And in its choices and gestures – only gestures – towards subversion, The King re-entrenches the kinds of violent, white-coded aggression that keep recurring as an assumed and dominant value.
The film’s most bizarre choice is to compress the conclusion of 1 Henry IV and the entire of Henry V, when it’s quite clear that this should be a film of 1 Henry IV. It almost feels like an hour of material was cut, leaving only the barest sketch of backstory for Hal, despite the fact that the film depends so entirely on that backstory. Here, Hal (the dead-eyed and greasy-haired Timothée Chalamet) is a moody boy who is very genuinely on the outs with his father; there is no sense of a grand plan. After Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn) calls him to court to publicly humiliate and disinherit him, Henry turns up at the Battle of Shrewsbury in a fit of pique and challenges Tom Glynn-Carney’s Hotspur to single combat, much to the anger of Prince Thomas (Dean-Charles Chapman), who was expecting to win his own honour that day. Within twenty-five minutes of the start of the film, he has hacked Hotspur down in front of his men.
The film’s opening sequence acts thus as extended prologue, rewritten in an odd contemporary idiom that mixes colloquialism from several English-language dialects and some inadvertently hilarious dialogue (‘Where be the big dog?!’ screams Hotspur). We get a single shot of Hal drinking (and smiling, something I think he does twice in the whole film), and Falstaff (Joel Edgerton) is a brusque ex-soldier, gone only slightly to seed, who keeps his company and who advises him to make peace with his father. In some ways, then, this is a truer Bildungsroman in that it asks us to see Hal grow into his responsibility; but this growth happens after his crowning. Here, the emphasis throughout the 1 Henry IV material is on the anxiety that the entire nation has over Hal’s fitness as an heir. Henry is a Denethor-like figure, seen only in a couple of scenes where he presides over a banquet with oily sarcasm and gruff antagonism towards the uptight Hotspur, and again in the court where he publicly humiliates Hal. There is a sense of his corruption which inheres in his first line, as he notes that civil war is ‘consuming’ him as he moves shakily towards the banquet table. The textual compression means that Hal is crowned almost immediately after the Battle, and without a true reconciliation with his father, leaving his coronation uncertain.
The threat to actually disinherit Hal, too, unhelpfully places the entire arc of the film entirely on Hal. This is a film about a privileged white boy putting his inheritance at risk, and its whole action is predicated on an investment in him earning it. Indeed, when Henry threatens to give the inheritance to Thomas instead, there’s the potential for a radical reimagining of the monarchy as something you do earn, rather than something you are given, which the film ends up working strenuously to deny. Thomas is also entitled – after Hal kills Hotspur on the battlefield (and in doing so saves countless lives from an unnecessary battle, which is the only real act of nobility he shows in the film), Thomas has a massive hissy fit in front of all their soldiers, actually screaming the words ‘this was my battleground!’ The competition here is between several individuals who all have their own status and progression as their central concern.
A long central section of the film aims to justify the war in France, and this is where the film shows its most potential. This juvenile Henry has a haircut (his hair while prince is truly a thing of awfulness, and as king it at least is no longer covering his face) and starts receiving presents from nobles around the world, including a tennis ball from the Dauphin (Robert Pattinson, of whom more anon). Henry had chuckled over a mechanical bird from Venice, but is clearly angered by the tennis ball, which he throws against a wall. Nonetheless, he resists the idea of war, and it is only through growing conspiracy – a French assassin admits his plan, another Frenchman approaches the Earl of Cambridge, and Dorset (Steven Elder) encourages the young man to unite his country in cause of war to avoid appearing weak – that he finally allows himself to be swayed. Director David Michôd uses a bleak palette, as is typical for this genre, which frequently just leaves the cast’s faces invisible, and renders everything portentous through an intrusive score that tells us Serious Things Are Happening. The conspiracy becomes important again later, but is quickly left behind as the film shifts to France.
This is a heavily derivate film in terms of its shots. Saving Private Ryan is the clearest immediate reference, with the D-Day-style arrival on French beaches (Henry is first off the boat and onto the sane) and then the stroll through the French countryside to Harfleur. Later, the Battle of Agincourt rips off the GoT episode ‘The Battle of the Bastards’ wholesale, especially as Falstaff finds himself crushed among a press of men and is shot directly from above. It’s a grimy, muddy film, though the battle sequences are decently shot with some impressive moments, as in the PoV shot of the French watching the English arrows rise and fall towards them, and the chaos of the conflict effectively captures the mess of hand-to-hand battle.
An interesting quirk of the film is that, even as it opens out its genuinely impressive set-pieces (the siege machines at Harfleur) it also seems to become more chamber-style. Falstaff is brought to the war as a counter-voice to Henry, so that Henry can draw on his old friend’s experience, much to the chagrin of some of the nobles, and much of the French sequence involves Henry and Falstaff musing on tactics and approaches. What’s disappointing, though, is that this comes at the expense of any other voices. There are no working-class characters with voices in this army at all, no conversation or debate or challenge. Instead, Falstaff becomes a mirror for the King, reflecting back his own anxieties and feelings onto himself, and in this sense the entire conflict becomes about Henry in a way Shakespeare’s play never does. It’s a self-absorbed film, with the war against France an extension of his own arrested adolescence, and the battle is his proxy for growing up. It’s a pretty grim idea, an extension of a fundamental narcissism that could be a critique of kingship, were the film to actually critique it.
Instead, and especially disappointingly, the film leans instead into the easiest possible choice – to pursue bloody-minded aggression as ‘inspiration’. The film’s reworking of the Band of Brothers speech is, somehow, an even more nakedly direct appeal to English nationalism than the Shakespeare play (and it’s worth noting that not only does this film have an entirely white cast, but that we don’t even have the national variety of seeing Welsh, Irish, Scots fight together, and the main French accent is an appalling parody), with Henry screaming ‘MAKE IT ENGLAND!’ in the faces of his men, stirring them to pure bloodlust. This is made most clear when The Dauphin himself arrives on the battlefield at the end of the fight and approaches Henry as if to engage in single combat. Hilariously and fittingly, the Dauphin immediately slips – he can’t stay upright in the mud that his men have fought and died in, and it’s a nice touch. But instead, Henry turns aside, and lets four common soldiers pounce on the Dauphin and stab him brutally and ferally in the mud. Shortly after, he orders all the prisoners killed, even though the battle is over. Henry embodies and enacts an unthinking violence that the film allows to stand in for ‘greatness’.
The war scenes are enlivened somewhat by Pattinson’s appalling caricature of a French accent as the Dauphin, lounging camply in any throne that will bear him, and snarking at Henry. It’s a shame he has such little screentime as, for all of the problems of this performance, he’s at least fun, and there’s a rather sillier film hinted at here. Falstaff, on the other hand, serves the role usually given to the Duke of York in creating a face who can be killed off, though given how relatively little development the character has, and how dour he is, it’s hard to feel Henry’s pain. We are meant to understand that this matters to him, but given that his immediate reaction to the death is to order defenceless prisoners to be executed, it feels like we’re being asked to sympathise with man-pain and to approve an unconscionable action.
All this builds up towards what passes for a twist in the film. Instead of the wooing scene, we have a sit-down confrontation with the French King (Thibault de Montalembert), a sickly man who can’t abide sunlight, who agrees that Henry should marry Catherine (Lily-Rose Depp) for the sake of peace. Catherine, in her solitary speaking scene, is then given the job of explaining to Henry that he’s a dupe – that none of the assassination attempts were real, that the whole thing was manipulated, and that he’s gone to war over the personal slight of a tennis ball. As Hailey Bachrach pointed out on Twitter, this is a recurring recent trope, allowing almost the only female character in the whole film to come in at the last possible second and offer a corrective, before again being silenced. And the issue here is that, while this should be a critique of Henry and the entitled privilege (the sheer power!) that allows him to wage an entire war over an imagined slight, it instead is turned back into personal betrayal as Henry confronts and murders Dorset for misleading him.
The film ultimately, thus, re-entrenches violence as its dominant paradigm. Dorset tells Henry that he has shown himself to be great, perhaps one of the greatest of English kings, despite the fact that Henry has largely allowed himself to be led, and that his main achievement as articulated in the film is the ability to instil a violent spirit in his men. And when Henry at the film’s end turns to Catherine and tells her to ‘always speak to me clear and true’ while the people scream his name outside, there isn’t a sense here of a moral lesson. What it implies is that Catherine has become his newest and most powerful weapon, allowing him to reap all the rewards of an aggressive Eastern expansion while simultaneously offing those who seek to manipulate him, and in doing so entrenching hereditary monarchy and violent conquest as the measure of ‘greatness’. It’s a bleak view of kingship, but the bleaker thing is that the film seems to side with it.