Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.
One side-benefit of Game of Thrones‘ decade-long reign at the top of the Attention Economy food chain is the general increase in the public appetite for historic dramas–a genre that was a staple in the 1960s and 1970s, but which had fallen by the wayside by the end of last century. In recent years, as a result, and leaving series like Outlander completely aside, we have seen excellent feature films such as Mary, Queen of Scots, and The Favourite.
Netflix has now jumped into the game with The King, an updated take on the story of Henry V’s ascendance to England’s throne, culminating in a stunning military victory at the battle of Agincourt.
The story has been given the cinematic treatment twice before, in 1944 with Laurence Olivier (almost a wartime propaganda film) and again in 1989 with Kenneth Branagh (who also directed, and blessed us by introducing Emma Thompson to film audiences!). Both of those efforts, starring Shakespearean thespians, were heavily based on the Bard’s famous play.
Netflix’ take, by contrast, stars young American actor Timothée Chalamet as the wayward Prince Hal–quite a departure from his pedigreed predecessors. And how appropriate, given Henry V’s own lack of proper pedigree to succeed to the throne.
Joel Edgerton and David Michôd’s script, while based on Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry V, also makes little attempt to be Shakespearean–not only avoiding Elizabethan diction, but making no attempt whatsoever to evoke a hint of the stage play. If you’re expecting an updated St. Crispin’s Day speech, forget it. Henry gets his stirring moment at Agincourt, but it’s not inspired by Branagh or Olivier.
On the face of it, The King seems more interested in history than stage plays. Its opening act documents the young Hal’s dissipation, and his reform upon ascending the throne after his father’s death. The second act has Henry taking principled (if often difficult) steps to restore honor and unity to the fractured England left to him by his vengeful and divisive father. Court intrigue then takes over as the third act leads Henry to invade France and face off against an overwhelming opposing force at Agincourt.
But don’t expect to learn actual history from this beautifully-filmed if heavily fictionalized drama. The story drags the fictional Falstaff out of the pages of Henry IV and tags him along to an ill-fated charge on French soil–when the character is not only fictional, but absent from his creator’s version of Henry V. The film also sets up a personal spat and face-to-face confrontation between Henry and the Dauphin, heir to France’s throne, while in reality Louis met his fate later that year in quite a different fashion.
So this is not a historical epic, per se, neither it is not a classic (read: slavish) homage to Shakespeare; it is not timely propaganda; and it does not rely on the star power of a lauded thespian.
And yet, I dare say, it fares better than its predecessors and most of the other films in its genre. It doesn’t have The Favourite‘s arch postmodern bent or humor, but it does take the standard set by films like Becket and The Lion in Winter and update it for the current century without stooping to George Martin-esque vulgarity or potty-mouth laziness. Very often, they say, the sum of the parts is greater than the whole–and that’s certainly true in this case.
I highly recommend this film for those interested in period dramas.
The King is included with your Netflix subscription.