Writer: Joel Edgerton and David Michôd
Director: David Michôd
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
International approaches to Shakespeare are always fascinating for a theatre-lover, a Japanese take on Macbeth or a Chinese version of Coriolanus – which have both been seen in London in recent years – tells us much about the way Britain’s greatest export is received and interpreted around the world. Now an Australian-American perspective on the Henriad trilogy arrives at the London Film Festival which eschews Shakespeare’s language but burns with psychological complexity.
Finding oblivion in the taverns of East London, the young Prince Hal learns of his disinheritance, replaced by his younger brother who is about to put down a rebellion. Desperate for peace, Hal intervenes only to find himself holding a Kingship he never wanted as two quick deaths place a hollow crown on his head. Threatening overtures from the Dauphin of France put the new King Henry V on the path to war, but who can he trust?
Henry V is one of the greatest war plays ever written and Shakespeare’s text brilliantly explores the weight of monarchy which Joel Edgerton and David Michôd’s Netflix-funded film both celebrate and advance. Shakespeare’s architecture remains but the story delves deeper into the notions of personal betrayal while turning two aspects of this well-known story on its head – suggesting that it is the King’s poisonous advisors rather than his own hot-headed fury that manipulate him into war with France, and by rescuing Falstaff from his seedy tavern death by putting into the field alongside his young friend.
And it all works surprisingly well, taking a familiar tale and finding a new and compelling angle. Michôd spoke at the Gala screening of openly honouring previous screen treatments from Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh, and while potentially “blasphemous” The King successfully creates a more modern perspective, one that revels less in the glories of war and instead considers the political complexity of statesmanship, of balancing conflicting advice and placing personal concerns aside for the greater security of the nation.
Michôd builds a slow-burn tension throughout the film, taking a different stance on some of the famous scenes as Henry dismisses the Dauphin’s gift of a tennis ball with a shrug and refuses to be goaded. It does take a while for the battle to arrive – and in fairness in Shakespeare’s version it’s all offstage – but when it does Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography suggests the confusion of medieval battles as a scrum of muddy grey armour fills the screen in an intense fighting sequence in which Henry’s strategic advantage and growing blood lust is clear.
Timothée Chalamet cuts a slight and very young figure as Henry V, and not an immediately obvious choice but the viewer underestimates him just as his court does. Chalamet in fact grows in stature as his character does, less convincing as the drunken sop in the early scenes but the graduation to calm and considered monarch suits him very well. Best of all, Chalamet understands and conveys the psychological complexity of Henry, troubled by the sacrifice of men but increasingly brutal in his decision-making as he faces his military and political enemies with steel.
Sean Harris is such an underrated performer and here as chief advisor William becomes the young King’s major aid, pivotal to the unfolding action, as is Edgerton’s Falstaff who takes on a new life as Henry’s warlike Yoda. In their excitement the creators briefly forget that The King is not being told from Falstaff’s perspective and place Edgerton’s overly heroic interpretation centre stage which slightly diverts the narrative. In an otherwise quite straight-laced film, Robert Pattinson has lots of fun as a malevolent Dauphin who threatens fire and brimstone but ends up flat on his face.
This inventive approach reflects our own political and literary history back at us, and while Shakespeare may have written the definitive history of Agincourt, it’s not the only version of that story. Casting his account aside is a risk but it’s one that pays off for Edgerton and Michôd. The dialogue may lack the sparkle and introspective genius of the bard, and the occasional cheesy moment rankles, nonetheless The King is an enjoyable addition to Netflix’s growing collection of period-action films.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 2 October to 13 October