Michael Hayward's Blog

Review: "The King"

Michael Hayward

In years to come we may refer to the first half of November as the Netflix Eligibility Interval: that slim window of opportunity when mere hoi polloi can view Netflix-funded feature films in theatres without being a Netflix subscriber.

As many will know, the only reason that this window of opportunity is open at all is that current Academy Awards rules require that, for any film to be considered for an Oscar, it must first have had a proper theatrical release, for a period of at least one week in the year of nomination, in a Los Angeles theatre. With the deadline for Oscar nominations being mid-November, we are seeing a flurry of brief theatrical screenings of top-notch (or: potentially top-notch) films, films such as The King (directed by David Michôd, and starring current Hollywood boy wonder Timothée Chalamet as King Henry V) and, perhaps more significantly: Martin Scorcese's latest gangster epic The Irishman (starring digitally de-aged versions of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci). But I must emphasize the word "brief"; The King, for example, will run for a period of just under two weeks, at the Vancity Theatre (details here); The Irishman will be available for viewing at the Vancity for less than one week (details here).

For the most part these are films which, in an earlier era, would have received much-publicized openings and a long run in a significant number of theatres nation-wide. Instead, The Irishman will be screened in a small number of actual theatres across the country for this abbreviated run. After that, your only chance to watch Scorcese's latest film will be while seated on your own couch, your eyes glued to a (relatively) small screen (your TV, your laptop or your iPad), after first having logged in to Netflix using your (or your best friend's) credentials.

Other top-rated feature films from previous years which are currently under Netflix lock and key include Roma, last year's Oscar Best Picture nominee from director Alfonso Cuarón; the 2017 film Okja, from Korean director Bong Joon-ho; and the Coen brothers western anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which was nominated last year for several Oscars. To make the streaming have/have not divide even more distinct, none of these films are currently available on DVD or Blu-ray (which would at least allow libraries to offer them to their patrons).

The film industry is sharply divided on the great streaming debate, which has seen a significant number of A-listed directors accept Netflix funding for their projects, in exchange for exclusive streaming rights. Some have taken the position that the traditional movie-going experience (that is: viewing a film on a full-sized screen in a "proper" theatre, in the company of many others) is the hot and beating heart of the movies, and that it should be preserved at all costs. Steven Spielberg has said that he would like to see "Netflix films" excluded from consideration for Academy Awards.

Those who hold these views feel that, when directors trade away the traditional "big theatre" outlet for their films, in exchange for funding from streaming services, they have, in effect, sold their souls to the devil. Of course Netflix is not the only streaming service engaging in this practice: Amazon Prime, Apple, and Disney, are all investing heavily in the creation of exclusive content for their respective services, as they vie with each other for long-term customers. As Apple and Disney build out their streaming services, you get the feeling that we are still in the early stages of this battle; you also get the feeling that we are witnessing a seismic shift in the way that we all watch movies, and that it is entirely possible that traditional movie theatres could go the same way as video rental outlets; that is: out of business entirely.

Having said all of the above by way of a preliminary: just what kind of film is David Michôd's The King? And: just how much would we be missing if we were only able to watch it at home, on a smaller screen?

Well, to start with, we've seen this film (or some close approximations of this film) already. The King tells (or more accurately: retells) the story of Prince Hal, the wayward son of King Henry IV of England. Hal prefers the company of scoundrels and ruffians (John Falstaff and his cronies) to the stultifying life at court. Eventually (spoiler alert) Hal himself becomes king, whereupon he proves himself to be one of the finest kings (in the eyes of some) that England has ever known, primarily by triumphing over the French at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.

We've seen this story many times before, primarily in the version that was told by William Shakespeare, in the four history plays known collectively as The Henriad. There have been quite a few film versions of Henry V and the related plays over the years, and many viewers can quote from the stirring speech which Henry V gave his troops on the eve of battle, the speech which includes the famous passage about "we few, we happy few, we band of brothers."

The King is not another take on Shakespeare's play, though it is based on the same events, and if you are hoping to hear Timothée Chalamet give his interpretation of that famous speech from Henry V you will come away disappointed (we are given, in its place, a rather tepid exhortation in which Chalamet paces back and forth, shouting at the top of his somewhat under-inflated lungs to the patient troops, who try to puzzle out the king's rather muddled analogies: about how they, and in fact the very spaces between them, form one flesh, which is England itself).

The Agincourt battle scene itself owes a lot to the epic battles from Game of Thrones (though with less of a budget to work with, I expect). Arrows, loosed from good British long bows, arc through the air and wreak havoc on the overconfident French troops. Men in heavy armour mud-wrestle each other to the death in a field in France, until England finally emerges victorious. Robert Pattinson gives a wonderful version of The Dauphin of France: cocky, arrogant, slightly effeminate, and flagrantly rude to our boyish King Henry; just the sort of villain that we can't wait to see humiliated. Johnny Depp's daughter Lily-Rose Depp plays the young Catherine, daughter of the French king, who is offered in marriage to the victorious King Henry. Joel Edgerton gives a more-than-passable version of Falstaff, and Sean Harris gives an outstanding performance as William Gascoigne.

To my mind, the best screen adaptation of Shakespeare's Henriad plays remains The Hollow Crown, which, somewhat ironically, was a series produced for British television in 2012, in part to mark the occasion of Britain's hosting of the Olympics. The King is a better-than-decent take on the material, and is worth a watch. But do you need to see it on the big screen? Perhaps not. The King begins streaming on Netflix on November 1.



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