Two Netflix Films about Mediæval Kings in the British Isles: Outlaw/King (2018) and The King (2019)

Although Robert the Bruce (whose story is rendered in Outlaw/King) and Henry V (of The King) were two historical figures whose lives never overlapped, they did live within a few generations of one another (Henry was born around 60 years after Bruce died), and both lived in what was then a divided island, though part of that was down to the actions of Bruce himself. Neither film can probably claim to be great history — they are more invested in generic tropes of heroism and resistance, while The King isn’t even based on the history but on Shakespeare’s rendering of it some century and a half later — but both illuminate some of the ways that history is used and abused, also adding to that popular idea that Mediæval times were all about grim misery, mud and gore.

Outlaw/King (2018) [UK/USA, classification 18]

It’s fair to say that this is one historical epic that is keen to emphasise the muddy, bloody nature of mediæval battle, and there’s certainly no shortage of gruesome bloody detail of close-up combat. However, there’s also a surfeit of big sweeping helicopter shots of the Scottish scenery, which I suppose give a sense of place, but do seem a little bit Tourist Board-sponsored and pretty for a film that is so grimly violent. There’s also a sense of scenery-chewing hamminess in some of the performances on both sides (but mostly the English — for the English are the worst, obviously), yet the central pairing of Chris Pine and Florence Pugh is very effective, and even Pine’s accent isn’t too wayward (unlike some of his hyphenated co-stars). In short, Outlaw/King has its moments, but it also feels a bit sloppy at times and as David Mackenzie films starring Chris Pine go, it’s no Hell or High Water.

Outlaw/King film posterCREDITS
Director David Mackenzie; Writers Bash Doran, Mackenzie and James MacInnes; Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd; Starring Chris Pine, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Florence Pugh, Billy Howle; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Wednesday 14 November 2018.

The King (2019) [USA/Australia, classification 15]

This is a very long film, almost needlessly so, but that’s not really what makes it a disappointing one. After all, if you’re going to tell a Shakespearean story but dump all of Shakespeare’s words, then you’d better have a really good screenwriter, and sadly I don’t quite think Michôd and Edgerton are that in this case. It’s a story of court intrigues, so of course everyone seems to gruffly whisper all the dialogue, except that it’s also a war film so there’s shouting too. Even Shakespeare managed to get more women into this story, but presumably the filmmakers were never interested in exploring that side of kingship. And of course the characters are completely different from the Shakespearean templates, so Edgerton’s Falstaff is more of a trusted advisor (right through to participating in Agincourt) than a garrulous witty drunk. But honestly, the best thing (which for some reason I’ve seen criticised elsewhere, wrongly) in all two-and-a-half hours is Robert Pattinson’s Dauphin and specifically his accent, his mockery of Chalamet’s Henry and the general sense of fun he brings to his part, a fun so obviously lacking in the rest of the film. It hints at what might have been.

The King film posterCREDITS
Director David Michôd; Writers Michôd and Joel Edgerton (based on the plays Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2 and Henry V by William Shakespeare); Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw; Starring Timothée Chalamet, Joel Edgerton, Robert Pattinson, Sean Harris, Thomasin McKenzie, Ben Mendelsohn; Length 140 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Saturday 2 November 2019.


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