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Netflix’s “The King” – Is It the Shakespeare Reboot We Need?

Timothee Chalamet has finally stepped out of coming-of-age movies into period pieces, beginning with The King. The film, produced and directed by David Michod, is beautifully and vividly shot, particularly the muddy battle scenes (I’ve never been one for them, but even I can agree on that), almost perfectly capturing Shakespeare’s vision for the Henriad plays despite the changes in iconic dialogue and events. However, there just seems to be something missing from it. It’s quite hard to place, especially with such an exquisitely produced film that has managed to draw a whole new generation into watching a film based on not one, but three Shakespeare plays but something about the movie falls flat. It misses the heightened drama and theatricality of traditional Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, perhaps to make it more realistic towards the real King Henry V as well as to adapt it into a film but personally, I feel like there’s more to it than just adaptation.

Image via Netflix

The film opens with the aftermath of one of the aforementioned battles, with Game of Thrones’ Dean-Charles Chapman as Hotspur walking over bodies of dead soldiers. From afar, he resembles the Prince Hal, tormented by the moral weight of war, presented in the film’s trailers but less than a couple of minutes in, he’s seen pushing a sword deeper into one of the only apparent survivors of the battle, a blank look on his face. This is one of those scenes that, when put into words, seems almost cliche but on-screen, particularly for Netflix, is downright chilling. However, in the scene immediately after, the film already starts to slip into the flatness mentioned earlier. Less than ten minutes in, The King’s inconsistencies in emotion and depth reveal itself. While I do think it’s commendable how the Netflix adaptation is actually pretty close to reality, it sacrifices the emotion and vigour of Shakespeare’s works that were so quintessential to Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre for politics. The stark co7ntrast between the first scene and the second scene almost sets the tone for the entire film. Henry “Hotspur” Percy’s criticisms of the King seems underwhelming compared to his gripping performance in the first scene as a cold-blooded military captain. His empathy and anger for “Cousin Mortimer” comes off as an improv rant as opposed to a direct attack on the King, which seems to be a running theme throughout the film.

Image via Netflix

The appearance of Timothee Chalamet seems like the epitome of Chalamet’s coming-of-age roles, even with the greys and browns of the film’s colour palettes. For a second, he even seems to resemble Kyle from Lady Bird in terms of his acting, despite it being a period film. Chalamet’s accent – among many other characters’ – seems almost over-the-top, even for the exaggerated received pronunciation associated with the British monarchy. It makes it hard to take him seriously as a character at times, particularly for British viewers such as myself. He still sounds like Timothee Chalamet for quite a big chunk of the movie and at times it’s hard to distinguish this character from characters he’s played previously like Elio or Kyle, particularly with the amount of teenage angst and melodrama in the first portion of the film. However, the fact that Chalamet still seems like Timothee Chalamet as opposed to Prince Hal is probably what makes his characterization so mesmerizing. As the film progresses, he begins to disappear into the role of a King grappling with the moral and ethical implications of war. It makes sense that Chalamet was cast as King Henry V – he’s, weirdly, perfect for period pieces which explain the upcoming torrent of them with Gerwig’s Little Women and Anderson’s The French Dispatch. 

I also particularly liked Robert Pattinson’s flamboyant take on the Dauphin (the Crown Prince of France), accent and all. Just like for Chalamet, it’s quite a departure from his normal, moodier roles but it works. It’s almost a breath of fresh air in the film, alleviating some of the flatness I mentioned earlier. Even with the accent, Pattinson’s flamboyance echoes that of quintessential Shakespeare characters from his later works, The Henriad being the earliest. He too, much like Chalamet, almost disappears into his role, making it one of the more outstanding performances in the film. While not much is said about him as the film is very Prince Hal-centric, Pattinson’s portrayal is intriguing and a departure from the monotonous feel of the film. Pattinson’s borderline pompousness adds the vibrancy missing from perhaps most of the film.

Image via Netflix

One aspect of the film that I really loved was the amount of detail and effort that went into costumes and production. The chainmail and armour worn by many of the characters bring the battles to life while the colour scheme of the story almost compensates for some of the inconsistencies mentioned earlier. This all gives the film a dark, almost foreboding tone which resonates with a modern, more morally-conscious audience than the jingoistic patriotism in the original Henriad. It’s quite subtle in the grand scheme of things, but the amount of effort and the eye for detail put into production is commendable. The mud in many of the battle scenes, which has been highlighted by many critics, even at the film’s premiere in Venice Film Festival, put into perspective how brutal and cruel the war was, particularly over something as trivial as a feud. Even in terms of things like Chalamet’s transition from long, matted curls while he is Prince Hal to a more militaristic bowl cut when he becomes King Henry V, the eye for detail is phenomenal.

Producing a film in 2019, based on three Shakespeare plays, not even the bigger names like Hamlet, Othello or Romeo and Juliet, is challenging and requires quite a bit of adaptation, especially when it’s going to be a Netflix Original. I think this is where the problems of The King begin. It’s not a bad movie at all and Michod’s adaption could potentially revive the market for Shakespeare adaptations, even earning a Rotten Tomatoes score of 71% and is noted by Metacritic as having “generally favourable” reviews. The changes to the script from the source material to appeal to a modern audience as well as the history of the real Henry V take away from the emotion and theatricalities of Shakespeare’s original work. The King, while having some incredibly gripping performances and outstanding visuals, becomes almost forgettable.

The King is available to stream on Netflix

Featured image via Netflix.

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