The lives of people that changed the course of human history so often find themselves subject to cinematic representation. In the case of Henry V, that representation has happened on nearly countless occasions, thanks to William Shakespeare. This year David Michôd has dusted off the tale of the storied King and has a new, not directly Shakespearean, take on it. I believe it is one of the finest films releasing this year.
When we first meet the young King, he is no king at all, nor is he named Henry, he is Hal (Timothée Chalamet), a riotous youth rebelling against his mad father, Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn), by living a life of debauchery. Accompanying him in his squalor is Sir John Falstaff (Joel Edgerton), an aging knight seemingly more than happy to live out his days with the English Prince vomiting into a bucket beside him. The film then tells the story of Hal’s transformation into the stern and revered Henry V who invades France and encounters them in the famed Battle of Agincourt.
The script, written by Edgerton and Michôd, is a strong one. They paint a picture of Hal with just enough detail and grandeur that the film never panders to extravagance but still gets across the massive scale of the events that take place. The politics are eloquently handled and explained without the film getting caught up and stuck discussing them for too long. The biggest strength, however, is how it captures Hal’s transformation.
Through the relationships he forms, and the courage he demonstrates, the script develops a convincing character arc from royal degenerate to King. Most of all, it inspires empathy for a young man who was both a fool and a genius, and when he rejects our empathy, he earns our respect. Because no matter how you look at him, he is a better man than his father, even if the similarities become too close for comfort. Overall this new take on the timeless tale is a good one.
When it comes to the heart of the Henry V story, I do find it hard to pinpoint what makes it so loveable. Perhaps it’s as simple as the legendary victory he achieved, or possibly just the fact that Shakespeare is involved. What I do know is that this version of his story encompasses the power of youth and its ferocity when challenged. And yet within the same tale, the young are chastised and made to face their own foolishness.
The eventual Queen Regent Catherine (Lily-Rose Depp) puts it best when she says to Henry “Before me now, all I see is a young and vain and foolish man, so easily riled”. This applies to every young man in the film, especially her brother, the youthful and antagonistic Dauphin of France (Robert Pattinson). This makes me think it just might be Hal’s complexity as a figure, possibly a complexity history granted him in retrospect, and the intricacies of those around him, that makes his story endure the way it does. As it makes for a clear warning that while youth may grant strength, it certainly lacks wisdom.
Chalamet is at his very best in this picture, come to think of it, when isn’t he at his best? He takes the strong basis the script grants him and elevates it even higher. He was robbed of an Oscar nomination last year, and looks set to miss out again, but have no doubt that he is deserving and will surely be recognised by The Academy in the years to come. Edgerton too is on a hot run of form. Boy Erased was one of last year’s most impactful films, he did a brilliant job with it. Now, in an entirely different realm of storytelling, he knocks it out of the park again. His take on Falstaff is heroic and wise, full of caution and genuine friendship. He is the jolly heart of this film and timelessly likeable.
When it comes to the work behind the camera, my praise only continues. Michôd directs with a steady hand and manages to capture some stunning shots with cinematographer Adam Arkapaw. The fight sequences and their inspiring build-ups are particularly well shot with how they display the mindlessness of violence and tension of an army. Henry’s landing on the French coast is one of my favourite scenes this year; it’s beautiful in its simplicity and contains a couple of particularly stunning shots. Altogether The King plays like a fully realised film, and it’s clear that everyone was on the same page during the entire filming process and are all deserving of recognition.
Nicholas Britell composed last year’s best musical score for If Beale Street Could Talk. This year he has hit all the right notes once again with my favourite score so far in 2019. It isn’t quite so good as his aforementioned work, but it’s still stirring and inspires emotion at all the right moments. There’s a certain hard to explain etherealness the music adds to the acts of war, for a few brief moments they morph into something from out of this world, potentially an allusion to God or maybe to the thousands of final breaths about to gasp out on the battlefield. Whatever the inspiration was, it sure manages to make an impact and cements Britell in my books as a great modern composer.
The King is epic and reserved in equal measure, finding the perfect balance along the way. Every aspect comes together in glorious unison that will make Netflix the belle of the ball when it releases on the platform in November. However, if you get the chance, be sure to catch it in cinemas during its October run, it’ll be well worth the trip.
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