“Once more unto the breach, dear friends.”Shakespeare, Henry V
I’m a big fan of Shakespeare’s Henry V, so I went into this film with mixed hope and trepidation. Would it live up to the classic, or would it be a hackneyed retelling of a story that any good history buff or student of literature knows inside-out?
The King (a Netflix original) is an amazing retelling of Henry V’s rise to power, focusing eventually on the Battle of Agincourt. A deeply personal story of this young monarch who, despite being called “The Warrior King,” wished only for peace. Unlike the aforementioned play, the opening act of the film focuses more on the young prince’s relationship with his father, his drunken carousing, and the civil strife plaguing his country in the form of Scottish and Welsh rebellions.
Through the lens of these rebellions and the machinations of those in the king’s court, the focus of the movie shifts to the complicated politics of the medieval world. Every man has “a kingdom behind his eyes,” Henry’s sister tells him. This is a stark warning that a king has no true friends, soon repeated by the one man who Henry did consider a friend.
Otherwise, the plot follows along the lines of what one would expect. The French taunt Henry, he grapples with the struggles of being a newly crowned king, and finally he leads his men to war. (I’d say spoiler warning, but this story is over 600 years old.)
While Shakespeare’s play focuses more on the unity of a nation and the patriotic fervor stirred up by the young king, The King appropriately focuses more on the internal strife of the titular character. It is this quality that lets this film stand apart from the play and its own numerous adaptations. This is the story of Henry V from a more personal approach.
Another place where The King shines is in the depiction of the Battle of Agincourt. There is a duel earlier in the film that hints that combat will be depicted in a brutal manner, and this scene fulfills that promise and then some. There is no chivalry to be found here. The fighting is a dirty, desperate struggle of life and death. It is reminiscent of the “Battle of the Bastards” episode of Game of Thrones (HBO).
There’s one shot in particular that seems to pay homage to this episode. With this I think it may have been an inspirational piece of film-making for David Michôd, the director of The King.
My only complaint is from the historian’s viewpoint, in that the film skips over the five years of war that took place between the Battle of Agincourt and the signing of the Treaty of Troyes. The King implies that Agincourt was the deciding battle of the war, although it never implicitly states this. Knowing the full story, one could assume they simply moved the narrative forward without the intervening years. For one learning the story for the first time however, I can imagine the wrong impression could be given.
Overall, I was enthralled by Henry’s own personal struggle to become the monarch he never wished to be. He struggles to balance his desire for peace with the need to present a strong front on the international stage of medieval Europe. The political machinations of those around him are intriguing as well. Finally, the climactic battle is one of the best depictions of medieval combat that I’ve seen.
Pros: Character-driven narrative, political intrigue, brutal combat.
Cons: Plays fast-and-loose with history. No pre-battle motivational speech can ever compare with the Saint Crispin’s Day speech by Shakespeare.
Verdict: Four stars. Not perfect, but definitely a must-watch for any fan of historical dramas.
The King (2019) is a Netflix original film, currently available on that platform as of the writing of this review. Images from the film are used here for editorial purposes.