I thought I'd check out The King, Netflix' original production based on Shakespeare's Henry V. But, after an hour -- I kept hoping it would improve -- I switched to re-watching The Crown. The next day, with a treadmill session in view and an hour of The King left, I thought, "The battle will get me through and they can't mess that up." But I was wrong.
This is sad because the story has been brought to the screen successfully before. Olivier's version is a bit dated, but Branaugh's is excellent. I watch once a year and it brings tears every time. I'm a sucker for Tudor propaganda and the transition from wastrel prince to glorious king amidst the mud, blood and squalor of the Hundred Years War touches me deeply. The script is inspired and Kenneth and Emma must've been still in love when they filmed the Henry-Catherine scene.
But the King, oh my the King.... Netflix decided to go in a different direction and chose a bad one. But, in fairness, Netflix deserves credit for good cinematography. (Kiss of death: the earlier cinematography is mentioned in a review, the worse the movie.)
Netflix cast the principals younger than average, which worked beautifully for Zefirelli in Romeo and Juliet, but not quite so well here. Whoever plays Prince Hal/Henry V looks to be about 18, whereas the real Henry was 26 at the time of the battle and 26 probably looked older in 1415 than it does now. Looks aside, this Hal/Henry is a vain, murderous, self-absorbed, sullen teenager who allows himself to be manipulated into war by the money-hungry English clerical-aristocratic complex. He's resentful throughout and never rises to destiny.
Falstaff is not the traditional fat, bragging, drunken, roguish, charming repository of all human frailties. He is instead a combination of Sam Elliott's Sergeant Plumley in We Were Soldiers and Yul Brynner's Chris Adams in The Magnificent Seven: war-weary but, when forced to it, fierce, courageous, self-sacrificing and tactically brilliant. There's no old rogue for Hal to cast off, which would cut the legs from under any transition to heroic kingship if such a transition were attempted. But there's none of that here and, instead, the noble-ish Falstaff sacrifices himself so Hal can become an antiheroic king. The whole effect is sour, gloomy and unsatisfying.
Speaking of which, Netflix' version of the Crispin's Day Speech goes something like, "I'll die today and you'll die tomorrow. Or you'll die today and I'll die tomorrow. What's the difference? We're all English. You're English, the man next to you is English. So make the space between you English. OK?" Whoof. If I gave that speech to my yardboy, he'd drop his rake and run home.
The battle scene itself is copied badly from Branaugh. It's a murderous, muddy struggle. But Netflix has made it even harder to distinguish French from English men-at-arms. That's to emphasize the meaninglessness of war, you know -- as if that point hasn't been hammered home a million times -- and to hell with drama and the niggling fact that we're supposed to care about the fate of certain combatants. If this bunch produced NFL games, they'd put both teams in the same uniform.
And who knew that Catherine Valois was a feminist republican and wired directly into the highest levels of French politics? "I will not obey you, but I might respect you!" "All monarchs are illegitimate!" "My father is insane but he is honest. He did not send an assassin to you." There's no chemistry between them, but this Henry and Catherine are a well-matched pair of nihilistic teen refugees from the 21st Century.
Here's hoping the next season of The Crown is up to snuff.