Arts and Entertainment

When a Teenager Becomes “The King”

Syeda Maliha reviews Netflix’s “The King,” a loose retelling of the early years of King Henry V.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Daniel Berlinsky

Over the years, Netflix has released a slew of original movies, and its most recent one, “The King,” might not have the most compelling storyline, but it is one of the most visually impressive films released this year. At times, the movie can feel like a drag and may make you want to grab the remote and fast-forward. At other times, Timotheé Chalamet’s acting will have you wanting to pick up a sword and fight in the name of England.

The film takes place in England at the start of the Hundred Years’ War. King Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn) is a dying monarch who is boorish and out of touch with his people. After his death, his partying son Henry (Timothée Chalamet), called Hal by his friends, is forced to become the successor to the throne. Throughout the film, audiences witness Hal attempting to distance himself as far as possible from his father’s actions while trying to deal with the imminent threat of war. The film’s primary focus is in capturing the progression of Henry V’s rule. When he first becomes king, Hal despises everything his father stood for and wants to bring peace to the kingdom. However, he soon learns that peace is not always so easy. As time progresses, Henry V loses his naivety and slowly becomes the figure he once despised.

Director and writer David Michôd and co-writer Joel Edgerton neglect complete historical accuracy. In the initial scenes of the movie, Henry V is a carefree teenager who often gets drunk and sleeps around with women. In reality, Henry V was more disciplined and spent his teenage years in the battlefield. Furthermore, several of the king’s interactions with the Dauphin of France are fabricated for the purpose of entertainment. The film was intended to resemble Shakespeare’s Henriad. The biggest difference between the film and Shakespeare’s plays is that the film lacks the romantic Shakespearean language. Rather, Michôd chose that his actors speak in an old English accent; this way, the audience can understand the dialogue without losing the sense of the medieval time period.

Michôd’s attention to detail, along with his precise set designs and costumes, allows him to teleport audiences to the Middle Ages. From the hefty metal armor to classic medieval beheadings, this film truly captures the details of the time period. Michôd showcases his directing ability impressively throughout the film, especially in battle scenes where he manages to capture the scope of the chaos, and then directs the focus back to the protagonist through a stunning one-take shot. Often in medieval retellings, kings and knights are glorified and portrayed as unstoppable beings. In Michôd’s film, he humanizes the King of England, which is visible in the choreography of the battles. When Hal fights Percy Hotspur, an outspoken critic of Henry IV’s rule, he struggles to keep his weapon and is visibly out of breath. In the final battle, audiences can see the true arduous and sloppy nature of fighting as Henry V, battered and beaten, drags himself through the mud and persists in fighting.

Michôd’s film doesn’t have the most exhilarating storyline, but its success can be attributed to Adam Arkapaw’s photography, which is the finest aspect of the film. Arkapaw, who was also the cinematographer of “Macbeth” (2015), is known for his tremendous use of color and motion in his shots. Arkapaw’s shots are visually stunning and capture the grime of the time period through his versatile use of color and light. During the battle of Agincourt, the ghastly and gray atmosphere contrasts with the yellow sunlight in order to emphasize the violent and gritty nature of warfare. Even in the most uneventful shots, the audiences are drawn to the screen because of the breathtaking color grading in each frame.

Timotheé Chalamet’s acting in this film was especially sensational. At the start of the film, Chalamet behaves as a carefree teenager enjoying his life. As the film progresses, audiences can slowly see young Hal transform into King Henry V as Chalamet’s posture becomes more rigid and his facial expressions turn sterner. Chalamet reaches the pinnacle of his acting toward the end of the film when he addresses his soldiers before they go off to battle. In this short sequence, Chalamet expresses a wide range of emotions, from sincerity to absolute frustration. Such a well-crafted monologue truly allowed Chalamet to become hysterical. It is at this moment audiences witness a child evolve into a man and leader.

Along with Chalamet’s riveting performance, the superb supporting cast allowed the film to succeed. Robert Pattinson’s portrayal of the Dauphin of France showcases his versatile acting range and tremendous skill, with his character having an uncanny resemblance to the outlandish characters from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1975). In the midst of war, the Dauphin is apathetic and unconcerned. He views the King of England as lowly and has the uncontrollable urge to make fun of Henry V’s inexperience… and his genitals. Pattinson’s relaxed demeanor along with his perfectly bizarre French accent portray the Dauphin as hilarious and grotesque. Sean Harris’s role as William, the king’s main advisor, is both earnest and keen in his portrayal, and Ben Mendelsohn does an outstanding, though short-lived, job playing the worn-out king.

For a film longer than two hours, some of the characters could have been better developed further. One of the most alluring characters was by far John Falstaff (Joel Edgerton). Serving as Henry V’s right hand man, Falstaff beguiles audiences with his quick wit and his amusing mannerisms. The film briefly addresses that Falstaff has a renowned military background but never builds on Falstaff’s experience as a soldier. Edgerton’s character is portrayed to be a man of few words who speaks when the time is right. Though Falstaff contributes to Henry V’s military campaign, he doesn’t showcase his wisdom as Hal’s closest ally and mentor to the fullest extent as one would expect him to.

Becoming the king brings out the best and the worst of Henry V. As his responsibilities become greater, Henry learns to be merciless when making high-stakes decisions. Audiences witness a once optimistic reformist become an autocratic warrior. On the night he is anointed king, Henry V hosts a dinner party in which he opens gifts from nearby countries with his closest friends and family. At that party, he receives a playing ball as a gift from the French Dauphin. While the members of his court view the Dauphin’s present as an attempt to disparage the king, Henry V views it merely as a playful gesture. After an attempted assassination, Henry V decides that the gift from the Dauphin was an act of ridicule and aggression and declares war on France.

The longer Henry V is king, the further he strays from his past morals, resulting in him becoming a chilling and rigid figure. With the members of his court incessantly warning him to be vigilant, Henry V becomes more unforgiving and paranoid about who to trust. When the king learns that certain members of his court were interacting with the French, he sentences his cousin to be hanged without hesitation, whom he referred to as his oldest and closest ally on the night of his dinner party. In another instance, when Falstaff calls out Henry V for ordering his men to kill all French soldiers, Henry V threatens to put him to death.

Unlike many other medieval movies,“The King” is a slow burn. However, it is the intricately crafted details of every character and frame that makes this film a masterpiece. From its primitive and barbaric depiction of war to its dark, gritty setting of 15th-century England, this film is truly a visual triumph.