THE KING commands a different take on Shakespeare’s ‘Hal’, England’s Henry V and the immortal 1415 battle of Agincourt. Historical accuracy is sacrificed, but then ‘The Bard’ made stuff up and people see it as sacred, so Bravecarp if it makes you feel better. This somber re-imagining drops the stylized language of the plays for a grittier, more accessible, but still literate telling: you just won’t have to hit the pause button every other paragraph to decipher it. The fictional Falstaff is allowed presumption to reality, and there are a hefty number of further dramatic licenses taking facts to the stock, but the able cast and very impressive production design readily seize the day. You can parry swipes at history but the thrust strikes home, and Shakespeare isn’t wounded. Directed by David Michôd, co-writing the script with Joel Edgerton (playing Falstaff), it was released to film festivals in 2019 and thereafter shown via streaming.
When King Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn) dies, dissolute elder son Henry, Prince of Wales (Timothée Chalamet) takes the throne of a country riven by revolts (Scots, Welsh) and suspect of the young ruler’s ability. When France first insults him and then dispatches an assassin, Henry is compelled to take an army across the Channel and teach Charles VI how to ruin a stew.
Henry was 6’3″, and 27 when he assumed the throne; Chalamet (who’s American, perish ye thotts) is 5’10” and 23, but looks like he’s 15 and appears to weigh maybe twice that much. Quibbles to the catbox, as it’s a good performance—plus his middle name is Hal, so nock that in your longbow and “loose!” The entire cast is in rich medieval form, with extra praise due Edgerton’s war-weary but noble and heroic Falstaff, Sean Harris’ sage (or is it?) counsel as Sir William Gascoigne, and Robert Pattinson’s flamboyant sneering as Louis the Dauphin. The script bristles with their exchanges, and the 140 minutes move forward with dispatch.
Filmed for $23,000,000 in England and Hungary (subbing for France), the production design (credit Fiona Crombie) is beautifully detailed, with superbly meshed CGI used to augment the large-scale scenes of the invasion fleet, siege (of Harfleur, complete with blazing catapult action), and ultimately the massive muddy melee at Agincourt, by far the most vivid recreation yet of that decisive wipeout. Encased in armor, wallowing in the mud with thousands of men and horses trying to murder each other isn’t made to look glamorous. Brad Pitt was one of the producers, along with Edgerton and Michôd, who directed Pitt in War Machine.
Picking apart these historical epics for errors may irritate the strict, piss off professors and allow the perpetually snooty to snort, but—stunning surprise—they’re not intended to be documentaries: they’re meant to convey essence and feeling for time, place, people and events and hopefully convey the arcane, mythic and inexplicable mess of the past into something semi-understandable and entertaining for our own fraught & frazzled Fridays. Shake, stir and chase with a book. God Save the Screen.
With Thomasin McKenzie, Lily-Rose Depp, Tara Fitzgerald, Tom Glyn-Carney, Steven Elder, Dean-Charles Chapman.