James H.F. Lloyd takes a personal look at the twists and turns of Netflix’s new Shakespeare-Esque historical drama, The King, which brings a fresh new look at the story of Henry V through the use of the main character, Hal.
When I first saw The King (2019), there was something about the story that touched me. The film deservedly received good reviews. It is a simple story beautifully told; every frame is a painting, clearly inspired by the artwork of the time. Every actor gives brilliant performances. Where I was initially unsure of Timothée Chalamet’s casting as King Henry, I soon realised he was a perfect choice. Written by the film’s director David Michôd and Joel Edgerton, the dialogue is Shakespearean but accessible, as musical as the melancholic and inspiring score. What a pleasure to hear a script that’s meaning and music have both been carefully considered.
It’s difficult not to compare the film to its Netflix counterpart, The Outlaw King (2018), where Chris Pine’s Robert the Bruce slaughters his way to victory, legitimising his rule with violence. Where both films share much typical to a historical drama, their outlooks couldn’t be more different. The Outlaw King is an angry, vengeful film about crushing a foreign oppressive England. But in The King, the real enemy is within. True virtue is not found on the battlefield. King Henry comes to know his famous victory at Agincourt to be his greatest failure, a consequence of losing sight of the truth.
The story does not begin with Henry, known as Hal. It opens on a weary battlefield, fought and won by the English. Young Percy Hotspur (Tom Glynn-Carney) fighting for Hal’s father King Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn) reluctantly slays a wounded rebel Scotsman. The battlefield is anonymous, one of many. This is how history is conveyed to us; a tiresome series of battles, of winners and losers, almost entirely male. When the battle of Agincourt inevitably comes, the Dauphin (Robert Pattinson) says to Hal “Let us make famous that field out there, this little village of Agincourt.” Whatever Agincourt was, it is now known to us as a battle. The place is secondary if considered at all. The absence of female characters can only be a critique of the historical record of this period, of which none is dedicated to women unless they are involved in the war (and lose). Hotspur is noticeably young. Both Hal and his brother Thomas (Dean-Charles Chapman) are too, not bearded warriors but slight, soft-faced; not children but not yet adults. These are fathers’ wars waged by sons.
Hal meanwhile is nursing a hangover, living in the slums of East Cheap with his disillusioned friend and father figure, John Falstaff (Joel Edgerton). He wants nothing to do with his ailing father, “the monster” that divided the land with the War of the Roses. In the tavern, as a boy without responsibility, he easily maintains strong morals. To become king is to become his warmongering father, so he does not seek the crown. But Hal’s brother Thomas is slain in battle, and when his father Henry finally dies, the throne is his. The royal adviser William (Sean Harris) encourages Hal to realise his dream of peace and unite the kingdom.
He accepts and becomes king of England. His coronation takes place, a religious and sacred ceremony. Hal is positioned as Christ-like, and his strong values are rooted in his faith. He forgives instead of feuds, seeks peace where others seek power, is honest and kind. After he is reborn as a king, he receives three gifts from three kings. Time is dedicated to religious practice, even as we see the Church, embodied as the Archbishop of Canterbury (Andrew Havill) to be corrupted. The crusades are still recent, and the Archbishop has no doubts about invading France, and then “on to Jerusalem.” Falstaff has renounced his faith having fought in the crusades himself. War and religion are one and the same, a path he has vowed never to walk again. Seeing people in prayer, he spits in disdain, but his gaze lingers, his face expressionless. Is it longing we see? He chooses to fight for Hal in France, and at Agincourt, he wears his old helmet bearing the cross. “For the king and Saint George!” he roars as he marches towards the French cavalry. It’s clear his faith has been restored by Hal. Faith here is not held by any institution but as an individual belief that everything can be better. Hal’s coronation is strongly associated with the newborn king, vowing to lead with honesty and the good of all.
But the coronation is as much a coming-of-age ritual. He must suddenly be a man, and face the authority and responsibility of adulthood. His sentiments will now become realities or failures, no longer words but meaningful acts. Despite this, he is continually referred to as a boy by all who dislike him. Children are present throughout the film, always watching, absorbing. They seem to act as a reminder of innocence. In a scene at the end of the film, William’s page boy (Oscar Bennett) witnesses all that happens. We see him only at the beginning and end of the scene, almost a reminder that he was there. The page boy stares at Hal but Hal won’t meet his gaze. Does the page boy see what Hal had once seen looking at his father?
As a young and inexperienced ruler, he is vulnerable, and France spoils for war. A child’s ball is the first taunt sent to test his nerve. An assassin is the second. The burden of rule becomes apparent. He is surrounded by men “who have their own kingdoms behind their eyes” as his sister Philippa of Denmark (Thomasin McKenzie) warns him. “No one ever speaks true, wholly true.” Like Hotspur, the paranoia and malice darken and contorts his face. It is a sickness. It quickly becomes apparent things are not as simple as he had once thought. “A king must make decisions lesser men are neither willing nor able to make,” William tells him. Hal is contemplating the execution of his friend, charged with conspiring with France against him.
It pushes him to finally declare war with France, there seems to be no other option. France had been his father’s long-held ambition, and their long march through its unfamiliar and hostile territory is akin to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. He journeys inwards, enacting his father’s ambition and questioning why. Morality becomes blurred. He asks Falstaff to go with him as the only person he can trust, while the Dauphin acts as his shadow. He has Hal’s short temper and equal in cruelty to Hal’s father, he represents everything Hal could become. Similar to Platoon (1986), with Barnes and Elias fighting to win over the young Chris, the Dauphin and Falstaff present two ideologies wrestling for the mastery of Hal’s soul. When the Dauphin (Robert Pattinson) beheads a child in Hal’s train, rage takes him, the monster grips. He orders any sentry caught sleeping to have their eyes gouged as punishment; their French prisoners to be slaughtered and their corpses speared on pikes. Made vulnerable by fear and sadness he gives in to anger, but Falstaff won’t massacre for him. “You are not that man,” he tells him. Falstaff provides a little balance in a situation tipped towards hate and division.
They finally meet the Dauphin at the battle of Agincourt. Falstaff creates a plan to draw the French knights into boggy terrain and weighed down by heavy armour the French are routed. William later tells him, “This is how peace is forged… in victory.” In the battle, Hal brutally shapes peace with a battle hammer. The Dauphin is slaughtered, and wandering the battlefield victorious Hal finds Falstaff, his corpse almost anonymous in the mud. One of his men comes to Hal about their rowdy French prisoners. “Kill them all” he replies. He has become “that man,” Falstaff thought him not to be. William sees him differently. “I would say you have proven yourself to be one of England’s great kings,” he tells him. The numerous books written about King Henry V would agree with this statement. Again, history seems to equate greatness with glory on the battlefield. He has won France and peace, but he is melancholic for having lost so much.
“You have achieved momentary respite,” Catharine (Lily-Rose Depp), the daughter of Charles VI of France says to him. They are to be married, and returned to England, with the crowds cheering his name, Catherine asks him, “do you feel a sense of achievement?” He replies with barely concealed pride, “I have achieved that which my father never could, I have united this kingdom under a common cause.” Catherine’s presence is commanding. She proceeds to directly and unflinchingly shatter his grandiosity. Why did he go to war? Falling to the excuses he had been spoon-fed by his adviser William, his reasoning doesn’t hold up to her scrutiny. There was no plot to kill him, no French assassins or agents. Her father had laughed when he heard the accusation. Having run out of excuses he says “Did you know of the ball he sent?” She looks at him in a mocking way that withers a man to a boy. “A ball? … It would seem that you have no explanation for what you have done. You have shed the blood of so many Christian souls…” That makes Hal recoil. It is undeniable fact that cuts through the façade of heroism and glory. He realises he failed in his vision and become like his father. Catharine has only this one scene to really speak. Yet it is the film’s most crucial. We understand the deaths of his friends were for nothing but a lie.
It is important his most crucial truth is delivered by a woman. There are three women who have any real speaking role. Each speaks the truth directly, be it Hal’s sister Philippa warning him of deceit, or the East Cheap landlady Nel Hooper (Tara Fitzgerald) telling Falstaff he was the “passing keeper of a prince’s puke.” It is Nel who makes Falstaff realise he has been abandoned. In the upper reaches of the realm, women-only speaks in private; in public never to any real capacity, the only pleasantry. Neither Hal’s father nor Catharine’s have queens illustrates women are not represented. The kingdom is singular, patriarchal. It is a world heavily imbalanced towards men. Hal’s decisions entirely shaped by male voices until talking with Catharine. How much does society lose as a consequence? A great deal.
In speaking about her father King Charles, Catharine says “He says only what he believes. That is why he is loved.” Truth is regarded as the most important thing of all, for “a unity forged under false pretence will never be a unity that prevails.” It is impossible to hear that without also acknowledging the context in which this film was released, an era of post-truth and alternative fact, division and narcissism. This film is so much more than a historical drama projecting the past. It conveys a universal truth we would all do well to heed. How many of us, like Hal, has been thrust into adulthood unprepared and had our beliefs compromised? We find ourselves doing things our younger selves vowed never to do. Too often we see films where the hero survives their trials uncompromised, without sacrifice. Having chosen one of two paths, they achieve the prize at the end of both. But true growth, as demonstrated in The King comes as a consequence of failure. Hal becomes a king after his coronation, but a man after his mistakes. He realises war with France was wrong, and only through the truth could he achieve this. He may have strayed from his youthful purity, but he becomes a better person for having done so. Where in our own political context the truth is so often rejected, Hal accepts it, and only then do we feel he can implement change. “I ask nothing of you,” Hal says to Catharine at the story’s end, “only that you will always speak to me clearly and true. Always. Will you promise me only that?” The King masterfully demonstrates that without truth, there can be no change.
The King is available now on Netflix (Please be aware of subscription charges).
James H.F. Lloyd is an avid contributor to Wales Arts Review.