Timothee Chalamet as the King on the battlefield, with overlaid title text

Netflix’s The King (2019): A Flawed Masterpiece

When one considers that Hal is quite literally his middle name, it becomes clear that Timothee Chalamet was uniquely positioned to provide a spellbinding rendition of Henry V, becoming the living portrait of England’s revered warrior king. Adequately, The King (2019) provides glimpses into contemporary historiography surrounding the troubled legacy of England’s short-lived fifteenth-century monarch, but a lazy disregard for the facts will leave many historians perturbed. As is so often the case with historical dramas, the reality behind The King was even more captivating than the story played out on screen chronicling the life and growth of the king encapsulated by K.B. McFarlane as ‘the greatest man who ever ruled England.’

The King is masterful in a number of ways. There are no subtitles to comment on events, which would obstruct the fast-paced and visceral flow of developments in early fifteenth-century England. The film begins on the frontiers with Scotland, casting Tom Glynn-Carney as the valorous Hotspur Percy, a nobleman fifteen years older than his depiction on screen. But it becomes clear even from the grisly opening that this will be a refreshing departure from the pompous heraldry of the Shakespearian Henriad, providing a more Anglo-Saxon, realistic take on the tumultuous reign of the late Henry IV. The position given to young Prince Hal amidst the turbulence of these events is, however, a stark reversal of historical reality. Henry did not waste his days stumbling between brothels and beerhouses; far from lacking control over the world around him, the young prince served as the figurehead of a baronial opposition, vying for control over the royal government which was gradually slipping away from the limp fingers of the ailing king. It was his own nascent ambition, rather than the rebellious youth portrayed on screen, that brought the tempestuous Prince of Wales into conflict with his father.

The depiction of the Battle of Shrewsbury (1403) at which Hotspur was slain is creative if lacking in authenticity. By focusing on a fictitious brawl between these two former kinsmen, director David Michod provides a singular, clear message which could easily have been lost in allowing the real, blood-on-metal clash to unfold on camera: this was a vainglorious, brother-on-brother waste of English youth, which became etched into the memory of the 16-year-old prince just as much as the near-fatal arrow wound to his cheek. A departure from the classical interpretations of Shrewsbury in Shakespeare’s Henry IV: Parts 1 and 2, to be sure, but one which feels unpolished and somewhat lazy, if genuine in its intent.

Henry V with military attendants from The Youth’s Historical Gift (1847).

It was important to see a vulnerable side to Hal, tormented by the horror of death, stoking an anti-war message served not only for a contemporary viewership, but also to appetise current historians, particularly Malcolm Vale, who prefer to see in Henry a reluctant soldier rather than a warmonger. Vale finished his book, which avoided the accusations of undue militarism, by referring back to King Henry as ‘that remarkable individual’. However, it was also symbolic that this was a prince who slept with a dagger, uncertain of the threats surrounding him. Nevertheless, the director contracts and contradicts the sequence of events in order to amalgamate everything into a blender fit for the audience’s consumption. The span of ten years, from the triumph on the field at Shrewsbury to the king’s deathbed, is covered in a couple of minutes; 1403 was not 1413, and the boy wounded in service of his father was not the man baying to ascend to the throne. Almost fittingly, in a Henrician way, when there is an obstacle to the plot, it is killed off. Thomas never died in 1413 and it is almost unforgivable for the director to wantonly ignore the loyal service he gave to his brother the king before his tragic demise in 1421, foreshadowing the untimely death of Henry V a year later.

Henry’s accession provides a fresh breath of realism; Timothee lives and speaks Hal at this moment, and to see the lords temporal kneeling, while the lords spiritual bowed, was a welcome nod to English feudalism. The interlude to his coronation occasions the prince’s transformation from rebellious son to prudent father of the young English nation. There are hints at Henry’s law policy, which, in addition to the suppression of Lollardy, occupied his energies in the first two years of his reign. Like many movies, The King converges multiple personalities into one or two individuals in order to make sense of an elaborate plot in the space of two hours, and this is seen in the characters of Falstaff and Henry’s Chief Justice, William Gascoigne. The former is nothing more than a product of vivid imagination, while the latter is portrayed in the vein of a sycophantic presidential security adviser rather than a royal counsellor. There is no evidence that Gascoigne ever served Henry V as Chief Justice; he was his father’s man, and Henry had his own closest allies to advise him, notably his uncle Thomas Beaufort. Beaufort is cast in an unflattering light here, a critic of everything the king does, unrepresentative of the childhood friend, only ten years Hal’s senior, who was entrusted with control over Harfleur, Rouen and eventually Paris, before serving as co-guardian of the king’s baby son after Henry’s death. 

If the landing in France feels a little like Hastings in reverse, it is purely intentional, as Henry V consciously modelled himself on reclaiming the rights descended from William the Conqueror. For the medieval historian, the scene on the beach is an emotive return to Normandy 200 years after its loss to the French, and the much blood spilt since. The protracted siege of Harfleur is executed flawlessly. Robert Pattinson offers a humorous portrayal of the Dauphin, framing Henry’s risky odyssey into the belly of the beast. Having the Dauphin at Agincourt was helpful for the narrative plot, but detached from reality. The French defeat was caused in large part because of the lack of unified leadership. The King does provide a stunningly brilliant rendition of the Battle of Agincourt, expertly recounting the positioning of Henry’s forces between two woods, outnumbered three to one. It was also excellent to focus on the decisiveness of mud – seeing the flower of the French cavalry flounder amidst the hail of English arrows practically jumped out of the pages of every serious history book which has chronicled this fortuitous clash. Nevertheless, Henry spent the battle not hiding amongst the trees waiting for his moment, but leading his men from the centre of the line, drawing fire away from them with a cunning daring which led to the crown on his bassinet being struck and broken by French marauders. The King provides the most realistic account of Agincourt in cinema, showcasing the slow, painful quagmire and the stampede which led to French calamity. The only blemish is a serious blunder – it would be impossible for the Dauphin to have been butchered at a battle he never fought! It appears Robert Pattinson’s career as a future Charles VII was cut short before it could ever begin, expended to make sense of a complex saga rather than allow a thorny antagonist to survive, as happened with the eventual undoing of Henry’s victory.

Henry V (Timothee Chalamet) is seated, surrounded by advisors.
Taken from the trailer.

In another swift time-lapse, the film pans from the triumph at Agincourt, to the march on Troyes five years later, foregoing the five years of hard campaigning which finally led to Charles VI’s surrender. Thibault de Montalembert captures the ‘mad king’ well, and his speech about the importance of family is poignant, though redundant considering we never see the importance of Henry’s three brothers, Thomas, John, and Humfrey, who all served him and his vision in France. Lily Rose-Depp also steps up to the role of Katherine of Valois adroitly. In the mould of the ‘priest’s king’, it appears Henry observed chastity from the moment of his accession to his marriage in 1420. She was the key that secured his right to the French crown; through Katherine would emerge a new royal bloodline cementing an ambitious and unprecedented dual monarchy over England and France, though in the last few scenes, the friction between king and queen becomes evident. Henry V preferred the company of his ‘band of brothers’ as he spent the last few months of his life continuing his conquest of France. 

A score can make or break a movie. In this case, Nicholas Britell’s regal soundtrack secures The King as the definitive blockbuster treatment of the reign of King Henry V, capturing the tragedy – and majesty – of Henry’s lost youth and hopefulness. The film ends, much like Henry’s reign, before the young king’s potential had reached its limits. He not only united the kingdom in common cause, but came tantalisingly close to fulfilling his vision of forging a dual monarchy over France and England. It was, in the end, his own tireless energy which killed him, and the king died young in 1422, aged thirty-five, never recalling his queen to his side. Had he lived just another six weeks, waiting out the passing of Charles VI, he would have become King of France. Instead the crown passed, albeit momentarily, to the baby son he never met. More than thirty years after his death, new religious foundations were being established in his honour, sacralising the memory of England’s once and forever King Hal. Timothee Chalamet will always be King Henry V, and it is unlikely anyone could surpass him in that role anytime soon. While lazy factual pitfalls will undoubtedly leave many historians, including myself, chomping at the bit, we could not have asked for a better ambassador for late medieval history than The King. Perhaps through this flawed masterpiece, the next generation of historians will embrace a Henry V who became far more than his father’s son.


Bibliography

Allmand, Christopher. Henry V (New Haven, 1997)

Dockray, Keith. Henry V (Stroud, 2004)

Harriss, G.L., ed. Henry V, The Practice of Kingship (Oxford, 1985)

Lewis, Katherine. Kingship and Masculinity in Late Medieval England (London, 2013)

McFarlane, K.B. Lancastrian Kings and Lollard Knights (Oxford, 1972)

Vale, Malcolm. Henry V: The Conscience of a King (New Haven, 2016)