Review. Netflix releases a new movie that covers the plot of three Shakespeare plays — with a new interpretation of the works?
„We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” is one of the most famous quotes from William Shakespeare’s history play “Henry V”. Over the span of three plays — “Henry IV, Part I“, “Henry IV, Part 2” and “Henry V” — the playwright fictionalised the life of the British King Henry V, predominantly showing him as a hero of war. Shakespeare paints an image of a king that influenced how people would look at the actual historical figure Henry V for centuries. However, today the plays are often interpreted in a more critical light, questioning the mainly glorifying depiction of war.
Netflix’ new movie “The King” is an US-American historical drama that builds up on Shakespeare’s plays, interpreting them in its own way. The film follows Henry V (Timothée Chalamet) – ‘Hal’ as he was called by Shakespeare, a name that is still used to describe the king. Although the movie focusses on Hal even more than the original plays do, it also keeps the importance of the entirely fictional character Sir Falstaff. The latter is played by Joel Edgerton, who also wrote the script and produced the movie.
Throughout the movie, the viewers follow Hal and Falstaff as well as some other characters during a change in monarchs and a war with France: more or less the typical story of a film on British history. Hal starts of as a young prince who prefers drinking over caring for his royal duties, but has to take over after the death of his father.
While the movie clearly uses Shakespeare’s plays instead of the historical background as its inspiration, calling Henry V Hal, including Falstaff and following the general storyline of the plays, it does not simply portray but rather adapt Shakespeare‘s plays in its own way.
The first and most obvious change is the language: while still sounding historically accurate, Shakespeare’s verses — and thereby also his famous quotes – are missing.
In addition, the character Falstaff is shown in a completely different way than in Shakespeare’s work. During Shakespeare’s plays he works as a comic relief and is always rather pitiful and ridiculous. He’s a reminder of the king’s lavious past, of a part of Hal’s personality he has to overcome once he becomes king. In the film he’s an actually useful and sympathetic companion, playing a vital role in the outcome of the war. Of course, changing the most comic character to a serious one gives the film a more serious tone than the plays. Shakespeare’s history plays are neither comedies nor tragedies: they walk the line, some leaning more to the one, some more to the other side. However, this movie mostly resembles a tragedy.
The ending creates a more pessimistic atmosphere than “Henry V” did, raising the question whether the war should have been avoided. It also gives one of the very few female characters of the movie some lines that leave the audience to ponder the action of the movie — and thereby of the plays. While the movie changed a lot of critical aspects from the plays and thereby addressed important topics like violence, it seems to ignore the lack of female characters. Instead it almost appears like the French princess Catherine was even less present than in the play.
Overall, the movie can definitely be recommended to fans of Shakespeare and English history. While the film is not perfect, it is a very interesting interpretation of some well known plays and shows great acting skills from most of the actors and actresses.