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NOW SHOWING: The King (2019)

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  • NOW SHOWING: The King (2019)

    I had looked forward to seeing Netflix’s “The King” since I first heard about it. I love British history. King Henry V is my second favorite king (behind Henry II). My favorite British battle is Agincourt. My favorite Shakespeare play is “Henry V”. A movie about Henry V and the Battle of Agincourt was something to get excited about. There was reason to believe it would be good because the most recent foray into British military history, “Outlaw King”, had been decently entertaining. There was reason to be worried because we already have two excellent movies based on Shakespeare’s “Henry V”, so what could a new take offer. It was sold as more of a biopic of Henry, which he certainly deserves. The movie was the brainchild of director David Michod (“War Machine”) and his co-writer actor Joel Edgerton. There screenplay was loosely based on Shakespeare’s “Henriad” – Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 & 2, and Henry V. But mostly Henry V.


    The movie starts with Henry walking through the detritus of a battlefield and finishing off a wounded enemy. That’s the Henry I know. Except it is not Henry V, it’s Henry Percy (Tom Glynn-Carney). At a meeting with King Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn), Percy has the temerity to mouth off to him. Again, like the Henry I know. Our first view of the titular Henry (Timothee Chalamet) is as a wastrel living above a tavern and partying with Falstaff (Joel Edgerton). This is the Henry we all know from the “Henry IV” plays. He hates his dad like a teenager who has been grounded and had his cell phone taken away. And behaves like it. He wants nothing to do with the throne and his father has turned to his younger brother Thomas as successor and commander of an expedition against the rebellious Percy. Hal, as his buds call him, is a pacifist, but he shows up to help little bro and offers to duel Percy to settle the dispute. Not one single member of the British army is willing to put money on the Robert Smithesque Hal. The duel is a realistically sloppy armored fist fight. This rite of manhood does not change Henry. He still has those daddy issues and is down-right rude at Henry IV’s deathbedside. His ascension promises changes of policies and détente with all enemies. However, war mongers influence Henry into declare war on France. It’s off to France to lay siege to Harfleur and get his butt whipped by a huge French army of armor-clad knights at a place called Agincourt. Well, that’s what should have happened, but according to this movie Henry’s appointment of his drunken puke bucket holder Falstaff as commander is the key to victory.


    Sir Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh both took on “Henry V”. They were faithful to the play which was faithful to the life of Henry. Shakespeare was no historian, but he consulted them for his historical plays. Michod decided to neither read “Henry V” nor about Henry V, apparently. I fear that viewers will think they are learning a little about the famous king. It’s one thing to fictionalize a biopic for entertainment purposes, it’s another to fabricate a large portion of that biography and often depict the opposite of what actually happened. This movie is both an historical atrocity and a Shakespearean atrocity. I’ll go into more detail in the accuracy section below, but right now let’s focus on Falstaff, a beloved figure in the Shakespearean universe. He is a main character in the “Henry IV” plays and the pre-coronation Falstaff is as portrayed by Edgerton. But Edgerton co-wrote the movie and clearly wanted to have a major part in the second half of the movie. What to do about the fact that Falstaff does not appear in “Henry V” and is referenced to have died in bed before the invasion fleet sailed? Disregarding the death, Edgerton decides to enhance his role by having Henry appoint Falstaff his commander (which I must admit had Henry’s advisers rolling their eyes in sync with me). This allows Falstaff to go on the expedition where he laconically spouts platitudes whenever Henry asks for advice. Just when you think Henry will finally come to his senses and kick the buffoon out of the tent, Edgerton, I mean Falstaff, comes up with a brilliant strategy that Henry implements because Falstaff’s knee can predict rain. Don’t ask. Edgerton then leads the assault.


    I suspect Michod/Edgerton calculated that there are few people like me who are both Shakespeare and history purists. The screenplay is proud of thumbing its nose at the source material. And frankly, it has no interest in even being faithful to reality. Much of what happens is laughable in a movie that lacks a sense of humor. This in spite of having Falstaff in it! Not only is Falstaff’s transformation from drunkard to tactician ludicrous, but Henry’s character development is problematic. Others have referred to him as “Emo Hal”. He goes from peacenik to reluctant warrior to ruthless royal in a short time. The real Henry went from toper (which may have been exaggerated by Shakespeare) to take-no-prisoners ruler. He is dragged into a war with France. His personality as king was almost the opposite of what is portrayed in the movie. Chalamet’s performance will be shocking for anyone expecting Olivier’s or Branagh’s Henry. Of course, if Michod had asked Chalamet to match those actors, it would have been a disaster. Note that Henry’s speech before the battle is not even close to the superfamous “Band of Brothers” speech. Chalamet would have sounded silly trying to pull that off. Instead he histrionically yells something about uniting England and fighting for your small piece of England. Speaking of disasters, the Dauphin (the son of the French king) is played by Robert Pattison, who apparently read his history so cursorily that he confused the insane king with his son. The performance could best be described as campy. While Chalamet is channeling Robert Smith, Pattison is Pauly Shore. Batman fans need to be very worried.


    The movie looks fine. Although clearly low budget in scale, they did have access to British castles for interiors. The battle was filmed in Hungary and used 300 men and 80 horses. The armor appears appropriate for the Late Middle Ages. There’s a lot of clanking. While wildly inaccurate on tactics, the climactic melee is realistically brutal. Michod restages the “Battle of the Bastards” from Game of Thrones with Falstaff playing Jon Snow! Michod solves the denouement problem of the play and both movies by twisting the closing scenes that boringly involve Henry’s wooing Princess Catherine (Lily-Rose Depp). For you “Twilight” fans, don’t look for any fireworks here. But you might like the anachronistic feminism of Catherine.


    I have seen a lot of bad war movies, but my reviews of them are my opinion and I seldom flat-out tell my readers not to watch a movie. I have to make an exception here. As a fan of Henry V and Agincourt, I can not recommend this trashing of Shakespeare and history. If you have not seen Olivier’s or Branagh’s movies, please do. They are great and you will learn a lot about Henry V and Agincourt. If you insist of watching this movie, please treat it as total fiction. Decide for yourself if it is bad fiction.
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