By Danièle Cybulskie
On the heels of its TIFF 2018 opener Outlaw King, Netflix is continuing to feed viewers’ interest in the Middle Ages with a new movie: The King. The King is based on a relatively short span of the life of England’s King Henry V, borrowing a little bit from history, and a little bit from Shakespeare. The result is an improvement on the regular medieval fare, although it still has a lot of the usual medieval shortcuts.
The movie starts with Henry “Hotspur” Percy stirring up trouble for the aging and sickly Henry IV while the young Prince Hal (Timothée Chalamet) spends his time leading a life of debauchery with Sir John Falstaff (Joel Edgerton). When Henry IV dies, Hal has to clean up his act to become Henry V. The new King Henry is tired of civil war and wants only to unite all of England. Of course, the French – in their typical medieval movie depiction as greasy, giggling, and trash-talking (in the form of Robert Pattinson) – push and insult Henry until he declares war. The movie takes us through Agincourt and finishes with Henry’s imminent marriage to Catherine of Valois (Lily Rose Depp).
If you’re looking for history, this movie is about as accurate as just about any other medieval movie (or even Shakespeare’s plays), which is to say that it’s not. There are certain touchpoints at which it gets close to history, and a surprising amount of time was spent on explaining the Battle of Agincourt – only for the movie to veer off in another direction extremely similar to Outlaw King as the battle progresses. But I think when we click on a medieval movie, we should expect by now that (much as we might want it to) it’s just not going to follow history all that closely.
That said, the background details are getting to be increasingly great in these movies, and it seems as if the people working on sets, props, and costumes are really doing some good research. I was impressed by the little things, like a wind-up toy, the baskets used to cart firewood, the chairs, and the ivory boxes. There was a bath, and I even spotted a woman doing laundry with soap! Fans of the trebuchet will be in their element as several minutes are spent just showing these graceful machines in action. Strangely, the princesses’ outfits were very plain, from Henry’s sister’s at his coronation feast, to Catherine of Valois’ just before her wedding. That seems like an odd little anomaly given the consideration given to just about everything else, but it’s not worth paying much attention to the women in this movie, anyway, as they are given only the barest reasons for being there and could be removed without much difference being made (despite the actresses’ best efforts).
The King falls into some familiar medieval movie traps in that its main character is never permitted to stop brooding. True, Henry V was known to be quite a serious fellow once he ascended the throne, but never allowing him to crack a smile reinforces the feeling of the medieval world being entirely glum all the time. The King also requires its hero, as with most medieval movies lately, to have to be persuaded to be king/leader of men. There’s no evidence that Henry V wanted to throw away the crown. He seemed happy to have it, even if he might have been uncomfortable with how his father got it. But it’s not acceptable to have a main medieval character be too comfortable with the monarchical system, I suppose.
When Henry does lead his troops into battle – the Battle of Agincourt – the director does a good job of not glorifying medieval warfare, even as he satisfies the requirement that all medieval movies have extensive, gory combat. This battle is brutal: muddy, confused, undignified, unheroic. There is a bit less bashing than in previous medieval film battles, in favour of daggers and swords being thrust into vulnerable parts of the armour. (There were a few moments during which I wondered why no one took advantage of the many unarmoured backs of legs, but perhaps this is just being nit-picky.) Stabbing an enemy under his armour is not what might be normally associated with the behaviour of chivalrous knights in the popular imagination, but it was exactly how people killed each other. Much as I personally don’t find scenes of war entertaining, I do appreciate that The King didn’t make it beautiful or glorious. I also appreciated that for every warmonger there was at least one character who was haunted by what they’d had to do in battle. This is explored in a fair amount of depth with Edgerton’s Falstaff.
(A brief nod of appreciation, here, to the director for giving Falstaff a reason to take off his helmet in the middle of a battle so the audience can see his face, rather than just having him inexplicably go without. Why Henry, who had actually been hit in the face by an arrow as a teen because he’d had his visor up, is without a visor at Agincourt remains anyone’s guess.)
Shakespeare fans may be disappointed to hear that Henry doesn’t give the “band of brothers” speech before Agincourt, instead going with more of a King Arthur theme of unity and Englishness which is a little odd if we think of what the real Henry V was doing there, but which serves this Henry’s overall motivations as they’ve been built so far.
Much as it’s my job (and the nature of my work) to point out the things that The King didn’t get right, the truth is that this movie shows that even though the plots for medieval movies still tend to remain similar, there are definite moves being made towards better representations of the Middle Ages. The background detail shows that people are concerned with getting the details right, and this, I think, is slowly going to make a difference. There were also places where there could have been more mud and blood, including the decision not to show a criminal being tortured. There was much less gratuitous nudity than in other medieval movies, as well. These may seem to be low bars – and in a sense, they are – but when we are used to seeing the Middle Ages portrayed in a certain way, it’s both refreshing and encouraging to see decisions being made to step back from stereotypes, even if it’s just a little bit at a time.
Overall, this movie was a definite step up from Outlaw King in terms of cohesive storytelling, even if the scenery wasn’t as stunning this time around. Historians will cringe at certain decisions made to serve this plot, but then again, they won’t really be surprised by that, either. In what might be a metaphor for the movie, itself, the real Henry V’s horrific facial scarring, caused by his teenage arrow wound, is shrunk down into a tiny, attractive scar. The King gives us a palatable, relatable Henry V, transformed by his ascension, justified in his actions by his noble intentions and outside events. Beyond the nit-picking, I think fans of medieval movies will find a lot to like about The King.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist
Top Image: Timothee Chalamet plays Henry V in The King. Photo courtesy Netflix