The King is about the young King Henry V ascending to the throne during the Hundred Years’ War with France. Henry’s younger brother Thomas had been their dying father’s chosen heir but when he’s killed in battle, Henry becomes the soon-to-be king. But Henry is unfit, preferring to indulge in the kind of hedonism enjoyed by young, wealthy men with fewer responsibilities. With King Charles V of Spain taunting him, the hotheaded and over-reactive Henry prepares to lead England into war and prove his abilities as a leader.
This historic background – which originally occurred over the much longer time-frame of 1413 to 1420 – is used as a catalyst for telling the story of a young man finding himself imbued with a responsibility he neither wanted nor expected to have but determined to honour it as best he can, even at the cost of forgetting the original points of everything this leads him to do. In this way, The King does what every great biopic does: it frames the situation of its historical protagonist in a context that can be understood by modern audiences.
Studying the kings and queens of England in school was only ever about facts and figures, there was never any focus on the people as individuals or why they’re worth knowing about. The King does the complete opposite, by not tarting itself-up just because it’s the story of an old English king as so many period dramas do. It’s not a celebration of Britain’s long-lasting monarchy, it’s a film which seems to have been made to be judged on its own merits rather than being praised simply for its popular subject matter. As a result, Henry is given respect as a legitimate character in his own right, making him not an Oscar-bait performance of British royalty but as a real person who once lived and doesn’t have the understanding of his legacy that we, the audience, do 600 years later.
I’ve always felt a yearning for history and the people who came before me. The main reason for my dissatisfaction with how history is taught is because I never felt the connection to my forebears. They were real, they once existed in this world, they once experienced the sensory phenomenon of life that we do. They’re not an invented backstory. They were real people who simply walked the Earth too long ago for us to truly understand them in real terms.
Watching The King gave me that personal connection to Henry because its naturalistic directing and respectful approach to its historical characters makes it certainly the most realistic depiction of that time and those people that I’ve seen. In my experience, most period dramas only show “what happened” and rarely create an atmosphere that shows what it was actually like to be a Human being in that time.
The King is a film of verisimilitude. It’s not directed with the kind of distance between its characters and the audience inherent to most period pieces – this is only a period piece because it happens to be. Instead, its scenes and the characters in them are presented as if they’re otherwise happening now. Its depiction of Lancastrian England is internally consistent and self-contained, not as a window into the past to be looked through like a diorama but as the world these characters inhabit and which for them is just as real as our own.
For example, the highlight of the film is a dramatisation of the beheading of Richard Conisburgh and Henry Scrope. Something which has always confused me is how, when learning in history class about the beheading of King Charles I, there was never any discussion of the fact that it actually used to be practised in Great Britain nor the considering of the subject’s experience – especially given that it’s now only practised by the worst of terrorists. It was always covered matter-of-factly, that it happened but not whether it should’ve happened or the lived Human reality of it.
Whereas The King doesn’t simply tell the audience that those people were executed for treason, it depicts the event from every relevant point-of-view: Henry, who heartlessly and coldlessly states that it shall happen, matter-of-factly and without changing his tone and Conisburgh and Scrope, who can now only count down the time they have remaining until they’re finally able to discover what it’s like for the end of their life to come in such a savage, undignified way. Henry watches in a chair as a cold wind blows, his face still unchanged while Conisburgh and Scrope become more and more filled with dread.
It’s a horrid scene but that’s what’s so memorable about it: that it takes the approach of neither glamorising the decapitation nor pointing the finger at the society of the past. Instead, scenes are presented as they might have happened with the faith that the audience will find it actually more entertaining than if they chose to deliberately try and make it so. It’s the kind of execution scene that, to my knowledge, has only been done previously in Cromwell, the dramatisation of said execution of King Charles I. Alec Guinness underplays Charles’ fear and humiliation as part of the drama of the scene. The only difference between Cromwell and The King is – how shall I put it? – the way in which the actual beheading is shown.
The effect is that the characters aren’t really characters, they’re people on screen doing whatever they do. They’re not in a film, the film is just the medium for everything within it, which is otherwise just as real and believable as the present. Director David Michôd has taken the unconventional, radical approach of not telling the story of a historical monarch through the typically-expected lens of reverence, instead taking it seriously enough to do it properly. Does Timothée Chalamet’s portrayal of Henry compare to those of Kenneth Branagh (Henry V) or Laurence Olivier (The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift with His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France)? Frankly, I don’t care because The King is the version with the kind of credibility and accessibility and absence of theatricality that will enable it to culturally endure much longer – as well as being the one I’d rather watch.