Netflix, Stay Away From Shakespeare: The King Review

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Netflix’s The King is visually brilliant, with Adam Arkapaw’s sumptuous cinematography breathing life into Prince Hal’s (Timothée Chalamet) glorious ascent to power. It is an inverse adaption of Shakespeare’s Henriad, a beautifully shot big-budget historical epic, with none of the wit, poetry or characterisation offered by the original. Shakespeare’s histories remain relevant political commentaries because of their complexity and duality: The Henriad depicts an environment in which the fevered jingoism of the fifteenth century is heightened yet ridiculed, creating a drama that glorifies war for the purpose of its criticism. 

Characters such as Sir John Falstaff, Prince Hal’s comic companion, are complicated and wonderfully contradictory, blending wisdom and comedy, insight and foolishness. The King is clearly repackaged for the consumption of a 21st-century American audience, adapting Shakespeare’s plot and dialogue to create a one-note two-and-a-half-hour television-movie that seems to take itself awfully seriously. Even Shakespeare’s most famous comic character, Falstaff, is criminally tedious.

David Michôd’s dialogue is solemn, filled with war-mongering speeches, and lacking any acknowledgement to the colourful and lewd language of the fifteenth century. Robert Pattinson as The Dauphin of France is the film’s only saving grace, offering wit and playfulness that is void until his appearance in the film’s second hour. 

In fact, The King is worth watching just to hear Robert Pattinson, in a gold-trimmed journade, tell Timothée Chalamet that he has ‘giant balls with a tiny cock’ in a delightfully outrageous French accent. But Pattinson’s performance shines ever more brightly because he is the only character who reflects even a semblance of Shakespearean theatrical splendour. Throughout his entire 150-minute stint as Prince Hal/King Henry V, Chalamet, sporting a ‘can-I-pinch-some-baccy?’ bowl-cut, wears the same pensive expression, replacing any character complexity: there is not a singular Machiavellian manoeuvre or a momentary guileless internal conflict.

It is not just the bastardisation of the Bard’s character development or poetry that is troubling in Netflix’s The King. Michôd’s characterisation of Hal has been slammed by Christophe Gilliot, Director of Agincourt Museum, who is ‘disgusted’ and ‘outraged’ by the portrayal of King Henry V as some sort of noble pacifist. 

Despite the film’s solemn take on Shakespeare’s theatricality, The King somehow also manages to be absolute revisionist nonsense, demonising the French, yet omitting the rape and pillage of the civilians at the hands of the English. “The British far-Right are going to lap this up, it will flatter nationalist egos over there,” Gilliot warns. Without the complexity and duality of Shakespeare’s language and characterisation, The King becomes alarmingly jingoistic in an age where we are seeing the rise of neo-nationalism upon the world stage. Nobody, it seems, can do Shakespeare quite like Shakespeare.

Image Credit: Netflix