Greetings, my fellow port swillers!
The other day, Ol’ Robbo mentioned that he was working his way through the Beeb’s recent production of “The Hollow Crown“, Shakespeare’s quartet of historickal plays including Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 & 2, and Henry V. At the time, having watched Richard II and Henry IV part 1, I said I thought I liked the series. My opinion remained more or less the same after watching Henry IV part 2. However, last evening I finally ran off Henry V and I’m afraid I must report that I’ve downgraded my overall impression. Or rayther, that I think the last installment of the quartet just didn’t come up to scratch.
Probably this is in part because I happen to know this play an awful lot better than the other three, but also, I think, it’s because the scope of this one is so much grander than the others and the production (and cast) simply didn’t have the means to match this change of scale.
First, I was amazed at some of the cuts made. Off the top of my head:
- Canterbury’s somewhat twisted discourse on Salic Law and why “as clear as is the summer’s sun” it did not disbar Henry’s claim to the French throne.
- The entire scene at Southhampton wherein the plot by Lord Scroop and friends against Henry is uncovered. This is a critical piece of continuity because rebellion against the lawful king is a theme that pervades the whole damn quartet.
- Of the Four Captains (Gower, McMorris, Jamy, and Fluellen), only the Welshman Fluellen makes the film, and most of his lines are slashed away.
- A lot of Ancient Pistol’s lines are cut, including much of his run-in with Harry and his determination to turn to a life of crime after learning of Mistress Quickly’s death.
- The vast majority of the “Would it were day!” scene in which the French nobles sit about fidgeting on the eve of battle and wishing the Dauphin would shut the hell up is missing.
- The entire biznay about the French killing “the poys and the luggage” also is gone. This really surprised me because the film contained a lot of shots of the kid who hung around with Falstaff and his friends and eventually followed Bardolph and company to France. If ever there was a Star Trek Redshirt in this film, I thought he’d be it.
Second, I’m sorry, but Tom Hiddleston was a disappointment. I thought he’d done very well as Prince Hal in the previous movies, but his King Harry left me cold. Yes, the tennis balls scene was not bad, but his big “Once more unto the breach” and “St. Crispin’s Day” speeches? Meh. There was nothing really commanding or regal or inspirational in either speech. And it didn’t help that all the soldiers around him at Harfleur in the former seemed….apathetic, while somebody got the idea that the latter should be made in conversational tone only to his inner circle of nobles.
I also thought Anton Lesser’s Exeter was pretty weak. This was King Harry’s heavy?
Third, and I suppose this was a matter of Beeb budget, but the fight at Agincourt was distinctly lame: the play speaks of 10,000 French casualties, but it never looks like there are more than about 100 extras on the set at any one time. The English longbowmen look as if they hadn’t got a few dozen arrows among them all. The Duke of York buys it by being stabbed in the back while he’s creeping around in the forest all by himself. [Note: I know that the play itself calls for a few discreet tableaux to illustrate the fighting. Fair enough. But if you’re going to do a “realistic” production, then you need to either go big or go home.]
Finally, I’m really not sure about John Hurt’s “Chorus”. Olivier and Branagh got around this innovation (the only one that I’m aware of in all of Shakespeare) by staging a “play within a play”, gradually pulling back from, respectively, an Elizabethan stage and a modern moovie production and gradually becoming immersed in the story. Here, it’s a simple voice-over to what is supposed to be “real” action. Frankly, I don’t think this works. Would it be heretical to suggest that maybe the Chorus should have been taken out altogether in this format?
On the good side, I thought the scenes with Pistol, Bardolph and Nym were very good, especially the one where they said goodbye to Mistress Quickly. I also liked all the scenes with Princess Katherine, including her “English lesson” with her maid and her broken-tongue courtship by Harry. I also liked Lambert Wilson’s King Charles, especially when he realized that his idiot son had been needlessly taunting Harry with his stupid tennis ball gift.
Now I’m going to have to go back and watch Kenneth Branagh’s movie version of the play. Yes, it omits things, too. Yes, much goes waaaaay over the top. Yes, Branagh was an enfant terrible. Indeed, I wish there had been a strong director on the project with the ability to say, “Ken? NO!” But I have to confess: the man knows how to play a King.