In Hollywood today, everything is about intellectual property. The IP your studio or streaming service owns can be what determines how many eyeballs and dollars you ultimately receive. Apparently mainstream audiences can’t be bothered with a knowledge gap, they have to come into a film with preconceptions about a property to engage with it. That means studios are gobbling up the rights to comic books, video games, toys, and anything else that has name brand recognition. The trend is even causing streaming services like Netflix to circle back to the original IP-treasure trove, a name brand so rich that it probably accounts for more adaptations than even Marvel Comics: the works of William Shakespeare.
The King, streaming on Netflix today, is an amalgam of Shakespeare’s history plays—Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V—in a way that sort of feels like the Marvel-fication of the Bard. Smoothed down into an easily digestible two-hour origin story that ditches the iambic pentameter for a script by Aussie director David Michôd (Animal Kingdom, The Rover) and co-writer/co-star Joel Edgerton, The King reimagines the classic Shakespeare fool Falstaff (Edgerton) as a battle-hardened, reluctant action hero and the French Dauphin (played with verve by Robert Pattison) as a campy comic book villain. It certainly loses a bit of the poetry, scope, and drama of the source material for something that feels like a straight-forward coming-of-age tale that will feel familiar for modern audiences. Still, with solid performances and fine direction, it’s perfectly suitable entertainment.
The internet’s boyfriend Timothée Chalamet stars as Prince Hal, the hard-partying first born son of Henry IV (the always excellent Ben Mendelsohn). Hal has Daddy-issues but is brought back home at his dying father’s request, urged by his drinking buddy John Falstaff. Henry IV has not asked for his son to return so the pair could reconcile, but so he could tell Hal that his younger brother Thomas will jump him in the line of succession. However, when the cantankerous dying King’s petty squabbles causes tragedy to befall his younger son, Hal is transformed from burnout prince to King Henry V. The new king is immediately tested by the French Dauphin and, despite his misgivings and thoughtful nature, pushed into war with France by his advisors.
Chalamet gives a compelling, likable performance as Hal, who plays the young king as soulful but intense, desperate not to repeat the mistakes of his father and lead men into unnecessary wars. However, due to the script’s by-the-numbers plotting, his transformation from drunk to stoic king happens in a flash, and once the young king’s anger boils over, Chalamet isn’t left with another gear to go to. It feels like such little character development for such a long story, but The King plays to its other strengths. Michôd is able to create several memorable set-pieces, culminating in the muddy Battle of Agincourt, which will please Game of Thrones fans anxiously awaiting that newly announced prequel.
Though there’s a spark to be found in Chalamet’s forceful performance, the battle scenes, and whatever it is that Pattinson is doing as the Dauphin (the film could have used more of his bizarro energy), that’s nothing compared to the late arrival of French princess Catherine (Lily-Rose Depp). Catherine immediately challenges Hal’s beliefs on his war with France and makes him realize that he’s become the very thing that he sought to avoid. Her fiery takedown of King Henry V is when this movie truly comes alive and the anti-war themes start to become something more than rudimentary. It’s just a shame that it comes so late and that she doesn’t have more screen time. It’s far more interesting to watch Hal spar with an intellectual equal instead of arguing amongst the advisors that we know he’ll triumph over.
The King is a fine showcase for Hollywood’s new It-boy Chalamet and a more than serviceable period drama, but in condensing Shakespeare’s works and ditching his way with words, the whole affair feels more dutiful than epic. It’s kind of like the way the MCU can pay homage to Jack Kirby without quite nailing the qualities that made him great. All the expected beats are hit, except for the final 20-minutes or so that hints at a richer story and dynamic than what’s to be found in everything that came before. Still, The King is an entertaining watch that you won’t regret firing up on Netflix, but weighty like Shakespeare tis not.
Nick Harley is a tortured Cleveland sports fan, thinks Douglas Sirk would have made a killer Batman movie, Spider-Man should be a big-budget HBO series, and Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson should direct a script written by one another. For more thoughts like these, read Nick’s work here at Den of Geek or follow him on Twitter.