I love Shakespeare – I am a massive nerd like that. In particular, I love his history plays. A lot of people find these plays the most boring ones Shakespeare wrote because the comedy is slight, the tragedy is subtle, and the romance virtually non-existent.
However, they are dramatic epics, sweeping monarchs and nobles into battles for their thrones and lives. I know they’re terribly inaccurate propaganda, but I love them.
I was very excited when Netflix announced THE KING, a movie based on Henry V’s life. Henry IV Part One is my favourite Shakespeare play, and THE KING was to incorporate elements of that play (as well as Part Two and Henry V).
However, I was severely disappointed and bored by what I’d seen. My gut reaction was they’d taken Shakespeare’s plays, made them more inaccurate and replaced all the charisma with mud.
As it has been helpful for me to examine why THE WITCHER had felt so uncompelling, I decided to re-watch THE KING, and analyse what had bored me. Was is simply because it neither followed my favourite play nor made any attempt to adhere to the history (which I also know well)?
For me, it was the characters who failed to engage me, and so the conflicts arising between them lacked any depth. It was just men rolling around in mud and armour so I couldn’t work out who was who.
Prince Hal, Hotspur and Falstaff are some of Shakespeare’s most charismatic characters, in my opinion, and yet they had all the presence of wet cardboard (to use a friend’s damning pronouncement). This cannot be wholly attributed to the actors, because I’ve seen them in other things where they are phenomenal. Instead, I think much of blame is on the script and the way it treats the characters and their development.
This movie can be split into four parts, and each treated and developed the characters differently. My interest also varied across the four parts.
Section One – Drunkard Prince to Ascension
I found the opening of the film the most boring. It’s supposed to set up the state of England with warring nobles and a tyrant king destroying the country – by contrast showing Prince Hal‘s maturity even though he’s a drunk.
The problem was the leading characters he’s being compared to and played off got not development or depth. They were cardboard cut outs without justification or motives.
Let’s start with Hal’s father – King Henry IV. He was weak and would not have managed to hold his throne the way he was acting. Henry IV had usurped his cousin Richard II for the throne, and yet in this he lets a himself be questioned and ridiculed publicly (“old man”) by young upstart Hotspur.
He doesn’t put a stop to it, but listens while eating. He shows no power, so his ultimatum lacks all credibility and yet its supposed to be this big moment spurring on Hotspur’s rebellion. When Hotspur storms out, Henry IV says “what a venomous boy. Now he will betray me.” Um, if you know that, then stop him BEFORE he can betray you. Or better yet, show your power by shutting him down immediately.
Despite this incredibly weak presence, his lords cringe away and Hotspur’s father – the powerful Northumberland – tries to make excuses for his son as if Henry IV might order his death. This reaction didn’t line up with the portrayal of the king.
To make matters worse, Henry IV decides to disinherit Hal and declare his younger brother Thomas, Duke of Clarence, heir. For a king with a shaky claim to the throne, this only undermines his position by spitting further in tradition’s face (and would have set up a split in the nobility backing different candidates).
Thomas is written as a petulant brat. “I want all the power and recognition but you’re stealing my thunder, Hal” he all but whines in every scene. There’s nothing to justify this, no depth to his character.
The same is true of Hotspur, who is nothing more than a fighter. Why does he want to fight? Why is he so upset about Mortimer? Why does he feel slighted? One of the best bits of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part One is the comparison between Hotspur and Hal, but that is shoehorned in once here.
Without depth or logical actions, these characters comes across as cardboard cut outs, but we’re supposed to be comparing them to Hal, to see that he’s the better. However, they don’t feel like people, so the tension between them/their ideologies is missing. The conflict goes no deeper than a physical fight.
There is no dramatic investment in these three pivotal characters, because they die within the first 30 minutes of the film. Even if a character only appears for a small portion of a story – particularly ones this important -need to be fully fleshed out, not a caricature of bad traits to make a hero shine.
Section Two – Coronation to declaring war
After this incredibly weak opening, the film at least picks up for section two. This was my favourite section of the movie, and by far the most engaging. The focus is on Hal, now King, resisting the pressure from his lords to go to war. Putting aside that historical inaccuracy (and the inaccuracy of the various beats along the way), it works so well because it’s highly character focused.
The tension comes from Hal’s battle to stick to his vision of a united, peaceful England in the face of looming war. Every action makes the decision not to fight harder, particularly as the counsel to fight strengthens. Against this, Hal’s character matures as he resists the “glory” of war until his own turn against him.
Hal and the Chief Justice have lots of time together to build a bond and feel fleshed out. This is the best aspect of the film, and gives the final section its emotional depth. The murkiness of the events builds a brilliant sense that something is wrong here, boosted by Phillipa’s warnings about the court having their own motivations.
Section Three – Invasion of France to the Battle of Agincourt
Another dull section, because all personal growth is dropped in favour of the war visuals. There are some gorgeous shots – my favourite being the trebuchets in the evening and the breaking of eye-level only camera shots to do the aerial shot of the battle of Agincourt.
However, without the characters fighting personal struggles, it is nothing more than hollow shots that glamourise war. The suffering of both the soldiers and the civilian is never shown.
The antagonist of this section is another weakly developed character – Robert Pattinson as the Dauphin. Other than me cracking up at his terrible French accent (even more obvious against Chalamat’s fluent French), he adds nothing. He flings childish insults and speaks so badly that he can never be taken seriously. He’s immature and so his army is no threat.
Section Four – Aftermath and Consequences
This is where the second section pays off, but it’s rushed and Catherine of Valois doesn’t get enough time to make her accusation with any evidence. She gets a few scenes opposite him, challenging him. It’s again a little unrealistic, and she has no goal. What’s driving her to say these things?
It is the next best section, however, with the confrontation between Hal and the Chief Justice returning to the character work of the second section. The emotions are highest here, but it’s undercut by the fact that he’s won without lingering on the consequences of war. So what if he was tricked? The cut to the credits means that this betrayal has no knock on effects for him or the country. It’s personal without the time taken to explore what is means for Hal.
What did THE KING do well?
The score is lovely, very ominous. It’s pretty much the thing building the undercurrent of unease. I think it may end up a new set of writing music for me.
I really loved the costumes. While there has been some modernising, the historical influence is held much closer than many other historical films. The shape and drape of the layers – particularly the Lord Chief Justice and Falstaff – stood out, even if the colours and adornment is highly toned down. The women are all wearing headdress (though their hair should be pinned up), and the wimple Phillipa of England wears for the post-coronation scene is as spot on as I can tell.
There are also really nice historical touches in the setting and actions. Hal entering his coronation barefoot. The games played in the tavern.
I love watching movies/TV/series and analysing them, and I want to incorporate that into my blog – hence writing these posts. However, I realise I’ve started with two very negative posts which may give the wrong impression of my opinion of non-book-shaped entertainment. It’s simply that I had very strong reactions to these two and wanted to explore that. My next post will be a positive one!
Read my other analyses of TVs and Movies: