The English victory at Agincourt during the Hundred Years War is one of the founding myths of England. Hey, remember when we beat those showboatin’ French knights because our bows shot farther? Yes, yes, we remember. God how could we forget? You’ve been bragging about it for the last 600 years.
It’s the English equivalent of our own American mythos about stomping those overconfident redcoats because they thought firing from cover wasn’t playing fair. Agincourt is famous partly because it was one of those rare, definitive, pitched battles in the age of siege warfare, and partly because William Shakespeare wrote a series of plays about it.
In The King, for Netflix, David Michod and Joel Edgerton have ditched the Elizabethan language but kept the same general story arc as Shakespeare’s Henriad (mostly Henry V) in their sort-of adaptation. We follow King Henry V (played by Timotheé Chalamet) from his days as Falstaff’s disheveled drinking buddy (with Falstaff played by Edgerton) through to his ascension to the throne and eventual victory at Agincourt (600-year-old spoiler alert). The decision to condense the story and stage it in plain(er) English mostly turns it into what it was probably always intended to be: a timeless story of power, personalities, betrayal.
Ditching Shakespeare’s original words allows The King to capture his essence in a way “faithful” adaptations rarely do. One surefire way to kill a period piece is with too much reverence for the material. If you shoot two people fighting like it’s an epic battle for the ages and not like it’s… two people fighting… it becomes bloodless and anodyne, shut up under museum glass. Characters in The King rarely feel conscious that they’re the center of some grand historical moment. They’re just people, trying to drink, fuck, kill — mostly just not die. That it’s believable in the moment allows us to experience all the twists and reversals in the sprawling story. It’s an epic, but a living epic.
We meet the future Henry V when he’s still just Hal, a fine-featured youth with a head of hair that’d be the envy of any 90s heartthrob, male or female (the tendrils, THE TENDRILS!). He whiles away the days getting plowed at the local tavern in Eastcheap with his buddy, Falstaff, a plump war vet who, like all English men, loves dressing in drag and singing silly songs. Edgerton, with the help of a few extra pounds, makes a great Falstaff, but it is not to wonder how amazing Russell Crowe would’ve been in this role. (Bellicose drunk with a heart of gold who loves to bellow songs is Russell Crowe’s wheelhouse.)
Hal’s father Henry IV, played by Ben Mendelsohn, who should really play all sweaty, pox-addled authority figures, summons Hal to court to deliver the news: Henry is dying, and he wants his pillow-lipped, milk-fed second son, Thomas (Dean-Charles Chapman) to succeed him, presumably on account of Thomas isn’t a drunk like Hal. We probably could’ve used one or two more scenes of Hal actually being a drunk to drive that point home. One night of chugging wine and singing lewd songs dressed as a lady seems pretty tame by the standards of medieval royalty. In any case, the succession doesn’t go according to plan.
Timotheé Chalamet probably isn’t the first actor who’d come to mind when casting “medieval prince capable of killing foes in single combat,” but he does have a certain hard-eyed earnestness. No one swoonily stares into the middle distance like Chalamet, and his resoluteness plays, even in a role for which on paper he seems horribly miscast. Soon Hal is Henry V, trying to figure out who he can trust and, along with his old pal Falstaff, facing down the cackling, high-handed Dauphin of France, played by Robert Pattinson, who, as always remains watchable even when he isn’t particularly believable.
The King‘s Battle Of Agincourt sequence owes much to Braveheart and to the “Battle of the Bastards” episode of Game of Thrones (which itself owed much to Braveheart) but if Henry’s pump-up speech wasn’t quite as rousing as William Wallace’s (if you get into a shouting contest with Mel Gibson you’re going to lose) the fight itself is more competently staged than Bastards. No, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen superior archery, false retreats, and flanking maneuvers, but one thing The King conveys clearly above all else is that this is a decisive battle between two giant armies that nonetheless comes down to bloated drunks draped in metal blankets duking it out in the muck. We probably could’ve used a few less rear-naked throat slash maneuvers but there is a pleasing amount of muck drownings.
The King is long — on-brand for, ya know, an epic — but it feels expansive rather than meandering. Michod, in the director’s chair (previously of War Machine and The Rover) refuses to rush important scenes, and when The King does end it’s with a bang, not a fizzle.
The King‘s most glaring weakness is that there isn’t nearly enough sex for a two hour and 20 minute-medieval war epic. When Lily Rose-Depp finally shows up as Catherine of Valois, her voice-of-God counsel feels like overcompensating for the movie’s lack of women up until that point. You’re telling me the king didn’t have a single mistress? Nonetheless, it’s the rare riff on Shakespeare that actually feels like a living story and not something to be tacked to the wall like a tapestry.