It would be foolish to expect the cinema to accurately portray historical reality but some films leave one itching to get home and pick up a reference book – or more likely, ask Google. Whether your preferred route is paper or digital, David Michôd’s Netflix drama, The King, is a film that cries out for a fact-check. This story of Henry V (1386-1422), still considered one of England’s greatest monarchs, is a complex blend of fact and fiction.
One could argue Shakespeare led the way with his history plays, Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, and Henry V, adding colour and characters to the story for dramatic effect. Michôd, who wrote the script in collaboration with Joel Edgerton, has taken a different set of liberties in creating a portrait of a brooding rebel-without-a-cause prince who takes up the throne with some reluctance but rapidly develops a ferocious sense of duty.
The movie was described to me as a humourless slog, and that’s a fair call, although the material leaves little leeway for comedy. Its strong points are a persuasive, grimy reconstruction of the world of the early 15th century, and stunning battle scenes in which combatants in suits of armour take to each other with swords, arrows, axes and lances.
There is also a sustained reflection on the nature of political power and the responsibilities of a ruler, although continuity begins to drag when reflection takes over from action. The dialogue makes a few nods towards Shakespeare but generally avoids the antique cadences in favour of a more contemporary style of banter.
Timothée Chalamet, who became every teenage girl’s heartthrob by appearing in a movie where he had a love affair with Armie Hammer, spends much of the movie looking as morose as a schoolboy who has been asked to clean up his room. The actual task in front of young Hal is more onerous: he will have to restore order to a kingdom riddled with civil conflicts, thanks to his cantankerous father, Henry IV (played by a debauched, long-haired Ben Mendelsohn). In the short term he has turned his back on the Court and is slumming it in London. His boon companion is Sir John Falstaff, a drunken, aging knight fallen on hard times.
It’s worth remembering that Falstaff was Shakespeare’s invention, loosely based on Sir John Oldcastle, whom the real Henry would eventually burn at the stake. There was also a knight called Sir John Fastolf, whose reputation is much disputed. The Falstaff played by Joel Edgerton is not just a loyal friend to the Prince, but a shrewd military tactician, a philosopher and a hero. Shakespeare wouldn’t recognise a figure he used as comic relief.
Even more surprising is the character of Sir William Gascoigne played by Sean Harris. Gascoigne was a real person, a renowned lawyer who allegedly clashed with the young Prince, and did not serve under the new regime. In The King, William is transmuted into a Machiavellian courtier who advises Henry at every stage. It’s a fascinating role, and a memorable performance, but completely fictional.
From the moment he steps onto the royal stage, Prince Hal shows a propensity for leading from the front. When he challenges the young rebel, Harry Hotspur, to single combat, to avoid the clash of two armies, we get a hint of his fearless leadership style. This scene is also fictional but dramatically effective. It shows Hal putting aside childish things and embracing his destiny.
The real Henry V was spoiling for a fight while his father opposed the invasion of France. Michôd has turned history on its head in making the young King into a pacificist who is drawn into a war against his better judgement. Once committed, however, he shows a ruthless, tyrannical streak, as those retainers who intrigue against him will soon discover.
Henry was a warrior but it seems unlikely the real king got as down and dirty as Chalamet does, wrestling with anonymous French knghts in the quagmire of Agincourt. These battle scenes are stupendous, leaving us wondering how antagonists ever managed to tell friend from foe. On the battlefield the knights in armour are packed together as tightly as commuters on a Tokyo subway train. They struggle to free an arm and land a clumsy blow. As the fight progresses bodies pile up in the mud as if they were playing a game of rugby on a rainy day.
Perhaps I’m wrong to describe the film as “humourless” because there is one outrageous comic turn: Robert Pattinson’s portrayal of Henry’s enemy, the Dauphin. Like Chalamet, Pattinson made his name as a teen idol. The difference is that Chalamet can act, whereas every attempt to place Pattinson in a serious role has been a fizzer. In this film it seems the actor has finally realised his limitations and based his performance on a careful study of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975).
I half expected him to tell Henry: “I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!”
The Dauphin’s actual lines are not far removed from this, but they cut no ice with Henry, who is already turning into a 15th century version of Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now!, with his famous doctrine: “Exterminate all the brutes!”
The real Henry would reign for less than seven years after Agincourt, dying of sickness while still waging war in France. The King avoids this anti-climax, concluding with Henry’s moment of glory after his first, historic victory. Typically, his triumph is poisoned by the discovery of a lie, allowing him another burst of gloom and rage. It’s a perfectly ambiguous ending for a film that shows how the private man is swallowed and brutalised by public office. The inescapable conclusion is that in war and politics there’s little scope for happy endings.
Directed by David Michôd
Written by Joel Edgerton, David Michôd
Starring Timothée Chalamet, Joel Edgerton, Sean Harris, Robert Pattinson, Ben Mendelsohn, Lily-Rose Depp, Tom Glynn-Carney, Ivan Kaye, Tara Fitzgerald, Edward Ashley
UK/Hungary/Australia, rated MA 15+, 140 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 26 October, 2019