It’s Shakespeare but not as we know it; in recent years film adaptions of the Bard’s best-known plays have parted from a more-traditional focus on language to explore the psychological experience of the principle character, as well as giving exciting new life to the battles that define the action. Particularly notable, in 2015 Justin Kurzel redefined the Shakespeare adaptation with a powerful and purposeful two-hour Macbeth with some of the most visually beautiful battle scenes seen on film, and brought a dark, massing intensity to the unfolding narrative that is as close to live performance as you can get with a camera. Now, another Australian and his American co-writer have taken an entirely modern approach to Henry V that doesn’t use a single word of Shakespeare’s text.
Sacrilegious is may be, even “blasphemous” as director David Michôd apologetically described it at the opening of The King at the London Film Festival, but it works. The Henriad Trilogy has been tackled many times on screen with looming version of Henry V by Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh, plus a respectable BBC version of all three plays with Tom Hiddleston as part of The Hollow Crown series. And on stage the list gets even longer with celebrated performances from Jamie Parker at the The Globe, Alex Hassell for the RSC and a well reviewed Michael Grandage production with Jude Law, all in recent years – the one thing we’re never short of is Henrys.
But these were all distinctly British in their outlook – regardless of the media, this has always been a British story told by British actors within the British theatre, film and television industry. Fascinating then to see a version of this most English (and Welsh) of medieval heroes translated and reflected back to us by our Antipodean and Atlantic cousins. The result is an entirely new screenplay by Michôd and Joel Edgerton that respectfully uses the architecture of Shakespeare’s play but refocuses the overarching narrative to consider the delicate political balance of a new ruler and the weight of shoring-up a new crown in a precarious international environment of betrayal, manipulation and intrigue.
There is both a sense of freedom in Michôd and Edgerton’s film that allows the characters to breath away from the wonderful but nonetheless precise confinement of Shakespeare’s language, and a rare opportunity to delve deeper into the play as well as adding a new spin to some of the characters and scenarios that allow the actors to build their roles more conclusively without the shadow of all those stage Falstaffs, Dauphins and Henrys. There is an energy in the film that suggests a sense of thoughts unfolding naturally and spontaneously before us, and of cause and effect in a movie where all actions and decisions have visible consequences for everyone else.
The departures from and elaborations on Shakespeare’s story are some of The King’s most engaging and memorable aspects; the treachery subplot given only one angry revelation scene in Henry V is expanded, drawing attention to the close council of men around the new king to explore the depth of the betrayal. And, interestingly, this is depicted as part of a longer campaign by the French Dauphin to goad the fledgling English monarch into a costly war that he cannot win.
In this way, Michôd and Edgerton also suggest a far stronger sense of the political machinations at work in the new court as the older counsellors – who served his father – seek to shape the reign of Henry V with their own anti-French, pro-war agenda. These are additions that later set the monarch on a post-war collision course with those who shaped his mind and is a welcome and well-considered opening-out of Shakespeare’s story that shifts the central narrative on its axis to offer a new and intriguing perspective.
Similar adjustments also provide an alternative view of Henry’s approach to monarchy and diplomatic relations that add depth to the characterisation; the famous tennis balls scene which stokes Henry’s ire and shows his underlying belligerence is here reframed so he dismisses the gesture, refusing to summon-up the uncontained response the Dauphin requires, and nor is this Henry convinced by the complex Salic Law discussion that should place him on the French throne, amusingly calling-out its confusion and actively rejecting his own claim.
Alongside a more purposeful concept of the Dauphin’s attempts to provoke Henry into a war he never wanted- rather than the dynastic quest to feed his own ambition which Shakespeare implies – there is an idea of events being outside Henry’s control, almost of a pacifist forced into fighting against his better judgement. We see this particularly in the early civil war scene as the then Prince Hal stops his younger brother’s army taking on Hotspur’s rebellion by challenging Percy to single combat in lieu of a fuller fight. War to this character is a last resort and not a light undertaking. Watching Henry navigate his reluctant kingship is one of the film’s most enjoyable and inventive aspects.
The other major alteration which may ruffle Shakespearean purists is the inclusion of Sir John Falstaff in England’s warring party, in fact the portly and drunken companion of the Henriad Trilogy and beyond is entirely revised to instead become a war hero and chief strategist during the invasion of France, encouraging the king to practice restraint where other counsellors want rash action. With Edgerton playing the role himself, naturally Falstaff becomes far more heroic than previously seen, dispensing sage and fatherly advice. During these sections of the film the creators momentarily forget that it was Henry’s perspective the audience was following and put Falstaff centre stage instead, but it is an interpretation that works pretty well in the context of the story they are telling, and pleasingly makes us look afresh at this vital relationship between the two men.
As Prince Hal / Henry V Timothée Chalamet pitches his performance pretty well, right down to the really very good English accent. He may not be an obvious choice for the warrior king among the more strapping Henrys of the stage but his slight frame and very youthful look fit extremely well into an adaptation that emphasises inexperience and naivety. And Chalamet offers plenty of both, along with a disdain for his father and the duplicity of the courts that provides valuable context for Henry’s different approach to kingship that becomes a key motivational driver throughout.
He is less convincing as the drunken wastrel Prince Hal in the early part of the movie – although the paternal resentment and familial strife are credible enough – but as Henry grows in stature as a king so too does Chalamet’s performance, eliciting the maturing of his mind as Henry finds the statesmanship and inner mettle needed to inspire his soldiers while keeping his advisers in check. The most wonderful aspect of Henry V are those in which the man weighs-up the conflicted concepts of individual and state, and here Chalamet garners all that psychological complexity in an affecting performance that stands-up well against all those who have come before.
Joel Edgerton adopts a variable northern accent as Falstaff but grounds the character with a more restrained interpretation than often seen. Good and loyal friend to Prince Hal, Falstaff’s considerable war experience and tactical expertise prove decisive, and Edgerton clearly enjoys the the strategic scenes in which his character bests the well-born men around the king. But Falstaff is also Henry’s constant reminder of reality, that war is costly and unpleasant for those who have to fight it and not an enterprise to be treated lightly – one of the film’s major themes. There may be some who dislike this approach to Falstaff, but if Shakespeare can create fictional characters from real people, then his own fictitious creations can also find new life and rescued reputation in a different kind of story.
Robert Pattinson stands out in a skilled supporting cast, providing the film’s relatively few laughs as the ego maniacal Dauphin whose arrogance precipitates his own downfall but not before some entertaining exchanges with Chalamet. Sean Harris is also notable as chief adviser William who quickly becomes a pragmatic guide for the young king whose subtle actions belie the mighty power that William ultimately wields – a presence that becomes increasingly important as events take their course.
Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw and Michôd make us wait as Shakespeare does for Agincourt and The King is primarily a film about preparation, but it well conjures the messy reality of medieval fighting, of masses of grey armored knights with visors obscuring their faces becoming increasingly embroiled in the mud as they fight in unpleasant conditions. There is a small nod here to the rain-soaked battlegrounds of the First World War, a hint about the universal awfulness of combat for those left to fight wars not of their making. This isn’t quite the version of Henry V that we know but Michôd and Edgerton’s film is a fresh and psychologically compelling retelling. Theatre purists might not approve but The King has a life of its own, one that honours Shakespeare’s text while creating something entirely new.
A version of this review was posted on The Reviews Hub website.