By Luisa De la Concha Montes
It is now evident that Netflix will do everything on their hands to become one of the leaders in the film industry. From the release of one of the first interactive films ever, Bandersnatch, to their $15 billion investment on the production of new content in 2019, they seem to be on a never-ending creative spree. However, what does this mean for audiences? Are they, as their CEO Reed Hastings assures, “finding content that they love”? The release of one of their latest films, The King, directed by David Michôd, and starring Timotheé Chalamet, Robert Pattinson and Joel Edgerton, might serve as an interesting case study of Netflix’s merchandise techniques, and the impact that they’ve had on their film’s production and audience reception.
The premise of the film is based on Shakespeare’s 1599 play, King Henry. The reason why this play continues to be adapted after so many years is because of the ambiguous portrayal of Henry V; he is neither good or bad, and his personality can be modified according to the historical needs of the time –which serves as a symbolism of the manufactured reality of history itself. In 1944, the Henry V movie, which was made during the Second World War, emphasised the patriotic sense of the war; and in 2003, the Royal National Theatre’s production portrayed Henry as modern war general to ridicule the Iraq invasion.
It is important to look at the previous adaptations of this play to analyse whether Netflix’s new release found an innovative approach: Can their interpretation be adapted to the socio-political needs of our time?
The opening scene in the original play presents Hal (who later on becomes King Henry V) and his best mate, Falstaff stealing, getting drunk, and fooling around. This first scene establishes the relationship between Hal and Falstaff, and sets the character development in motion. In the new movie, however, this scene is replaced with a short interaction in which Hal cauterises a wound from Falstaff’s back. This sets the tone of the movie in a whole different direction; unlike Shakespeare’s version, Hal is not presented as drunkard and careless man, instead, he is portrayed as an emotional and caring individual. This is furthered by the fact that it is Timotheé Chalamet who portrays Hal, and his previous performances in Beautiful Boy, Call Me by Your Name and Lady Bird have had a typecasting effect on him —often stressing the emotional side of the characters. Chalamet’s raw portrayal of King Henry transform the whole story; instead of re-engaging with the original portrayal of the king as a self-assured and unwavering man, he embraces the feelings of helplessness and loss that come with his political circumstance. This allows the narrative to unfold around the questioning of Hal’s identity, making it a genuine coming-of-age story. Furthermore, the development of the friendship between Edgerton (Falstaff) and Chalamet, manage to break-down the common misconceptions of male friendships, and embrace the idea of two man having a non-romantic effective relationship.
The production of the original play was extremely simplistic: it started with an empty stage, a lone speaker, and a chorus that encouraged the audience to use their “imaginary forces” to overcome the limitations of the theatre. Conceptually, this allowed the play to let the audience picture what they wanted, emphasising the interpretative nature of war. Netflix’s new adaptation is more complex in terms of production; however, it doesn’t over-exaggerate the use of physical elements, and to an extent, it remains faithful to the original concept: there isn’t an overload of CGI, and dark hues and colours remain consistent throughout the whole film. The battle scenes are one of the production’s main accomplishments; the audience genuinely feels ‘trapped’ by the multitude of muddy and armoured men, and by using a combination of aerial shots, close-ups, and slow-motion action-scenes, this historical representation of the Battle of Agincourt finds an enhanced sense of claustrophobic reality.
Even though the casting has a shortage of female characters, the two main women in the film make great use of their screen-time. Thomasin McKenzie, who plays the part of the Queen of Denmark, Philippa, brings to life a character that is devoid of self-doubt, and that offers King Henry a new perspective to his dilemma. On the other hand, Lily-Rose Depp, who performs as Catherine, is portrayed as a strong and independent-minded woman, who is not afraid to question the King, and make him think twice about his choices.
On first instance, it might almost seem as if the choice of the cast was mainly a marketing technique. To an extent, Netflix were probably hoping that young people (who don’t care much about historical dramas, or Shakespeare) would watch the film just to see Chalamet’s beautiful face (maybe, the author of this article is one of those). However, the great performances (kudos to Chalamet’s speech before the battle), the carefully crafted production, and the new approach to this classic play serves as a good example of how Netflix has got to the point in which they can get away with creating good adaptations of Shakespeare’s classics.
Furthermore, unlike previous adaptions, Netflix’s political reasoning is not explicit, but their concepts of power relationships and deceit can be adapted to our contemporary circumstance of tumultuous political discourse.