The King is neither a fresh take on the material, nor is it a faithful adaptation; it simply turns Shakespeare into a second-rate slog.
The King, Netflix’s loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s trilogy concerning young King Henry V, has little interest in its source material. Writer-director David Michôd may borrow much of the Shakesperean plot and includes many of the Bard’s nonhistorical characters, but there is little to distinguish the austere result from any of the other sword-heavy prestige works cropping up in the wake of “Game of Thrones”’ (think History Channel’s popular “Vikings” series, or the conspicuously similar Netflix project from last year, David Mackenzie’s Outlaw King). Anyone familiar with Shakespeare’s text will surely find themselves wondering why someone would choose to adapt one of Western literature’s most cherished works only to strip it of its most memorable elements.
Though the film spans all three of the plays concerning Prince Hal’s ascendance to the throne, its runtime is dominated by the narrative of the final entry, Henry V. Henry IV Part I’s Act V climax, an impromptu duel between Hal (Timothée Chalamet) and the rebellious Hotspur (Tom Glynn-Carney), comes just 20 minutes in, and it’s only another 10 or so until we reach the conclusion of Part Two, with Hal officially crowned. The King focuses primarily on Hal post-coronation, as he leads an invasion of France. As such, the primary arc that spans the Henriad is effectively abandoned. Rather than a journey that sees Hal evolve from indecent reveler to respectable ruler, his evolution here has more to do with paternal resentment; he begins his reign determined to resist the needless bloodshed of his father, but over time he begins to succumb to that violent, conquest-driven mode of ruling.
We should be clear: no matter the esteem of a source material, no film should necessarily be beholden to any degree of faithfulness—surely, we can all think of admirable films that go against their source. In fact, diversity of interpretation is one of the principal pleasures of experiencing Shakespeare, and theatre at large; each adaptation offers us the opportunity to experience the work anew, to find new ways of understanding it. Michôd’s issue is not that he dares to play fast and loose with the Bard’s work; it’s that his interpretation is so dull, so uninspired.
That said, the film is not entirely without moments of interest. Many online have already made note of Robert Pattinson, who makes an appearance as Hal’s primary adversary, the Dauphin of France, his bewildering choice of accent and tonally-dissonant bawdiness providing the film’s only real comic respite. There is also Chalamet’s performance, which, perhaps as a byproduct of Michôd’s jettisoning of Part I and Part II, imagines Hal not as a debauched delinquent-turned-king, but as a depressive teen who struggles to drag himself out of bed. Shakespeare fans will likely be upset with the loss of such a key element of the play’s protagonist, but admittedly there is something amusing, if not wholly satisfying, about a version of Hal who is effectively a moody Tumblr boy. In one particularly droll scene, he dejectedly stares off into the distance as the anonymous harlot whom he lies under playfully refuses his requests to stop calling him “your majesty.” Though likely not intended, there is something compelling about Chalamet’s lack of convincingness. He comes off like a boy in man’s clothing, utterly overwhelmed by his surroundings and projecting dourness as a means of hiding his discomfort—and to an extent it works for the character.
Where Michôd’s anti-Shakespeare approach becomes unforgivable, however, is in the baffling characterization of Sir John Falstaff. Though Hal is undeniably the trilogy’s protagonist, it is just as undeniable that Falstaff is the character who defines it. Arguably Shakespeare’s most beloved character, the roguish conman is also the crux of the Henriad, his eventual abandonment by Hal cementing the young prince’s ascent to venerable kingship. One might think that because the film focuses on Henry V (the only play of the trilogy not to feature Falstaff onstage), it would have little room for the cowardly oaf. Not so. In fact, behind Hal and his chief advisor William Gascoigne (Sean Harris), Falstaff (here played by Joel Edgerton, who also co-wrote the script with Michôd) probably has the third-most screen time. Clearly Michôd and Edgerton are interested in the charming lowlife, keeping him around long past his point of expiration in the plays, but their vision of the famous character is utterly banal. Edgerton plays Falstaff with a warm honesty; he is here a “fearsome old warrior” replete with wise aphorisms and clever military advice. This would-be boisterous lout instead claims to “speak only when there is something to be said,” and doesn’t hesitate to sacrifice himself for the good of others. Again, it’s troubling not because the filmmakers took liberties in their adaptation, but because they made one of the most singular characters in literature into a bland approximation of a stock Medieval hero. The interpretation isn’t interesting, it’s thoughtless.
Edgerton’s Falstaff is the most egregious example of the problem that infects the entire film. Shakespeareans will inevitably be disappointed, but even those without a stake in classic literature are unlikely to be engrossed by its useless grasps at realism. DP Adam Arkapaw’s somber, widescreen frames are awash in bleak greys, just as intent as all of these recent Medieval films seem to be on emphasizing the unglamorous grimness of this world, especially its muddy, brutal battlefields. Talented composer Nicholas Britell’s score is similarly serviceable and disappointingly anonymous. Michôd fails to envision this story as anything beyond a dime-a-dozen prestige TV series. His film is neither a fresh take on the material, nor is it a faithful adaptation; it simply turns Shakespeare into a second-rate slog.