Netflix’s THE KING provides a mashup of the historical and Shakespearean Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V with beautiful cinematography, brooding atmosphere, and plenty of medieval grit, but fails to either provide a true biopic or the powerful level of storytelling in its source material. Overall, it’s very enjoyable the way THE OUTLAW KING was, but as with that film, there was a pronounced lack of character development. The result is I was fully immersed in the film while I was watching, but then when it ended I shrugged and mostly forgot about it.
The historical Henry V (king 1413-1422) was the second king of the House of Lancaster, son of Henry IV, who overthrew Richard II to claim the throne. In his youth, he fought the Welsh in a revolt and helped his ailing father rule until political conflict drove them apart. When his father died in 1413, he assumed the crown and pressed his claims in France, leading to a string of victories, most famously Agincourt, when the English longbow and muddy field resulted in the slaughter of the flower of French chivalry. In this, Henry united his kingdom and established it as a major power.
The Shakespearean Henry IV Part 2, we see Henry as Prince Hal, living a life of debauchery with Falstaff as his mentor in the criminal underworld. When his father dies, he transforms into Henry V, a cunning king, having learned about what makes the common people tick. In Henry V, he goes to France and defeats the French host at Agincourt, bolstering his men’s courage with the rousing St. Crispin’s Day speech including the line, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” Thematically, these stories are about growing from a boy to a man, the challenges of rule, and war.
THE KING appears aimed at marrying these two visions buttressed visually by plenty of medieval realism and atmosphere. Stylistically, it succeeds, from the great cinematography to the rich dialogue to the horrific battle itself. The acting is terrific, with Timothée Chalamet (the poor man’s Cillian Murphy) doing a fantastic job as the brooding Henry. There’s a bleakness and loneliness to the overall presentation, which worked for me. Thematically, the story appears to be about ruling wisely, which requires a balancing act between promoting peace while appearing strong, and finding people you can trust to give you honest and wise advice.
I had a number of criticisms of this film, such as Henry undermining his own goals of internal and external peace by murdering enemies (one of them casually) while invading France (nominally to further his father’s goals on the continent), and the way the Battle of Agincourt is presented, though it’s fun to watch. This didn’t hurt my appreciation, though. What did was the same lack of character development that made THE OUTLAW KING similarly a fun spectacle about people I didn’t care about. We never really get a sense of who Henry is, what his flaw or mis-belief is, and how he must change because of the central conflict (he does change, but not much). As with OUTLAW KING, a bride appears, whom the protagonist will treat as an equal, which smacks of pandering to modern sensibilities, as these brides have almost no screen time or influence in their films. As a result of plot taking charge over character, the story feels disjointed as it covers a lot of ground.
Overall, I liked THE KING quite a bit, hope Netflix makes more of these historical epics, and recommend a watch. I just hope in the future the writers take that extra leap and infuse the story engine with deeper, organic characterization to make me care more about what happens in the historical plot.