By John H. Foote
There have been two previous incarnations of Henry V on screen, both based on the Shakespeare play. The first was the Laurence Olivier film of 1944, a fine version of the play which drew close parallels with the Second World War. That film was the first truly great Shakespearean adaptation and helped kickstart the British film industry, virtually dead during and after the war. The second, and best was Kenneth Branagh’s realistic film in 1989, a stirring and bloody film with a powerhouse performance from young Branagh which earned the artist Academy Award nominations for Best Actor and Best Director.
This new version tells the same story without iambic pentameter (Shakespeare verse) and is even more realistic than the Branagh version, a gritty, muddy film that superbly captures what it must have been to live in this time.
At the centre of it all is twenty-three-year-old Timothée Chalamet, fast becoming one of the finest actors of his time. Acclaimed two years ago for his mesmerizing performance in Call Me By Your Name (2017), he was nominated for an Oscar as Best Actor and won the prestigious New York Film Critics Award as Best Actor, well deserved. Here he gives a brooding, quietly intense performance as a young man suddenly thrown into a role he did not want, that of the King of England.
Estranged from his father, young Hal (Henry) was happy being a warrior, fighting his father’s battles and when told his younger brother would be King, he was fine with it. Yet he sees in his brother an arrogance that will, of course, be the boys’ undoing, a lack of battle sense that will lead him to his doom. Forced into the role of King, the young carouser, used to nights of drinking and bedding young women is forced to suddenly focus his attentions on his country. He seeks to bring peace to his country, to end the long war with France that seems never-ending. When France sends an insult as a gift to him as a new King, followed by an assassin to kill him, he has no alternative but to fight back. Meeting with the pompous young Dauphin (Robert Pattinson) he challenges the French man to one-on-one combat as a means of saving the lives of thousands of men on both sides. But the arrogant French man refuses, knowing his army outnumbers Henry’s three to one.
Needing an advantage, Henry is advised by his best friend and most trusted advisor Falstaff (Joel Edgerton) that should it rain through the night, the English army, shed of armour becomes quicker and lethal. The Battle of Agincourt remains one of the bloodiest and most infamous battles in British history, a terrible fight that saw mud mingle with spilled blood. Of course, it rains and it is exactly as Falstaff predicted, the French are brutally beaten. The Dauphin rides into the thick of combat and challenges Henry to the one on one the British monarch had first suggested but finds he cannot stand in the slippery mud. With a nod, Henry orders his men to kill the entitled young snob. During the fight his good friend Falstaff falls, leaving the young man in deep mourning. Perhaps angered by the death of his dear friend, he refuses to give the French prisoners quarter and has them all killed.
Meeting the French King a shaky truce is created through marriage. Henry will assume the monarchy of France, and marry Catherine, the daughter of the so-called Mad King. As their wedding day approaches he asks her why her father tried to have him killed. She answers honestly that her father did nothing of the kind, that she was with him when he was told of the plot and his reaction made clear he had nothing to do with it. Henry then accuses her brother, and she again answers honestly that her brother did not the vision or imagination to create such a plot. Realizing he has been duped, set up to invade France, executed his cousin unnecessarily for treason and sent thousands of men to their deaths in a war he turns to one of his closest advisors and realizes this man was responsible for it all. There had never been an assassin sent, there had never been a threat from France, though the two countries were uneasy with each other, no fight was desired by the French King. Henry kills his treacherous advisor and goes directly to his bride to be asking only that she always speak truthfully to him.
Henry did not reign long and died at the age of thirty-six, which of course was not uncommon in this century, long lives were quite rare. He was by all accounts a good man, a true warrior King who refused to sit back and watch men fight and die for him, he was right in the heat of battle swinging his sword. When he became King he sought to be a good one, to eliminate the feelings of the people towards the corrupt monarchy of his father by being honest and truthful.
Chalamet is superb as the brooding King, always thinking, always bearing the weight of the monarchy on his shoulders. He believes he can trust the men around him, and the realization that he has been betrayed by one he holds so close devastates him, you can see his body visibly collapsing before he recovers and stags the man with his dagger. There is a wonderful arc to his performance, moving from drunken young womanizer to the leader of a formidable army and kingdom, when told he has become a great King, despite the source (his betrayer) it is a true statement. It is a marvelous evolution watching this young man capture the intensity of a manhandling the transition to power as best he can. We can feel his loss for Falstaff as he sits aboard the ship on the way back to England, feeling for the first time the true weight f the throne, having taken men into battle to be slaughtered, including his friend. It is a powerful, deeply felt performance, internalized rather than emoting, which was exciting to watch.
Robert Pattinson is terrific, again, as a dandy French Dauphin, tragically in love with who he believes himself to be. Resplendent in his armour, he could be a GQ poster boy for the middle ages, but is truly a foolish fop. Pattinson, so brilliant earlier this year in The Lighthouse, has developed into a wonderfully daring actor, seemingly fearless to tackle new and challenging films. He gives this film a charge of high spirited energy, and we know at once upon seeing him that his arrogance will be his undoing.
Though his role is small, Joel Edgerton cuts a fine figure as Falstaff, the most trusted friend of the young King. Their friendship is such that he can refuse an order and live because the young King understands he is morally correct. The love and respect Henry feels for Falstaff is evident when the young man kneels in the blood and mud beside his fallen friend.
The battle scenes as expected are bloody and barbaric as men hack and slash at each other trying to find a spot in the armour where the flesh is unprotected. It presents a grim look at combat in the middle ages, one in which we would best leave behind.
Chalamet is again impressive, his dark eyes reflecting the sadness that seeing war will do to a man, watching men torn to pieces by the battle, knowing that what is happening to them in their mind is far worse than their wounds. Yet his greatest heartbreak is being played for a fool by one he so trusted. There is genuine hurt as he discovers more and more that this man he so trusted while delivering to him peace, betrayed his trust and confidence in every way.
Compared to the previous two versions, I was never a fan of the Olivier film, or the vastly overpraised Sir Laurence, though I respect the artistry that went into it. The Branagh film is ambitious and moves with great energy, but I never got inside the head of the young King as I did with Chalamet. You can see him thinking, evolving, making foolish errors as leaders do and dealing honestly and openly with it. He accepts his faults and shortcomings, and realizes that he can have only honest people around him, now is that not a concept for one who leads?
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.