Our Bottom Line:
Director Richrd Eyre is after both intoxication and the text, trusting that the words will be all the more effective if the locations reinforce them. Hiddleston talks of seeking “fluency … an ease, an off the cuff spontaneity”. Walters says the actors have to “own” the language “as if it’s absolutely the way they speak and that’s it”. I’m not sure what else they should or could say when the director is so obviously out looking for verisimilitude and horsemen galloping by rather than anything unadventurous and obviously theatrical.
Our Review (***)
At the end of Act 4 of King Henry IV Part Two the king, close to death, collapses. In Richard Eyre’s screenplay the crown falls off the king’s head and the camera follows as it rolls across the stone flags. It is an apt metaphor for an England suffering ongoing rebellion and turmoil, which is what these two ‘History’ plays would present.
We are in the middle of the so-called ‘Henriad’. Henry Bolingbroke is king, having deposed Richard II. Henry’s eldest son, another Henry naturally, is ‘young Harry’, who is not shaping up well. In fact, in the first reference to him in film and play, he is all ‘riot and dishonour’. And there we have the big question at the heart of this story: will Hal, ‘most royal imp of fame’, cut it in Shakespeare’s game of thrones?
Of course, he will, which is part of the fun. But how?
Richard Eyre is an acclaimed theatre director and knows how to create great Shakespeare productions and there are scenes in these two films that match his stage work. Perhaps that is not too surprising when you see who his principal actors are: Jeremy Irons as King Henry; Tom Hiddleston as Hal, Prince of Wales; and Simon Russell Beale as a wonderful Falstaff. These three are very well supported by the pairing of father and son, Alun and Joe Armstrong, as Northumberland and son Henry (‘Hotspur’); and by Julie Walters (Mistress Quickly); Maxine Peake (Doll Tearsheet); Michelle Dockery (Lady Percy), giving up upholstered Downton Abbey for bare Warkworth Castle!); and David Dawson, before his elevation to King Alfred in BBC TV’s The Last Kingdom, excellently cast as Poins, Hal’s wingman.
It is Jeremy Irons who says, in the DVD’s ‘Bonus’ feature, that “So many people are put off Shakespeare at school”. That unfortunately is still true, because the classroom makes a lousy playhouse. Anyhow, I am pleased to say, that did not hold for me, age 12. I was put into the long jump pit and told that I was now the fatal Douglas and was to kill Sir Walter Blunt, whom ‘I’ mistook for the king. We had probably read this scene in Act V, Part One, but I have no recollection of any words, just of cries, swinging wooden swords and sand wrestling. This was an excellent way to spend an English lesson. At 14 King Henry IV reappeared on my desk and I do remember being struck by the Prince’s comparison of the sun to ‘a fair hot wench in flame-coloured taffeta’. It seemed too good to be true.
Well, Eyre’s films would do the same. He’s after both intoxication and the text, trusting that the words will be all the more effective if the locations and pointy helmets and furs reinforce them. Hiddleston talks of seeking “fluency … an ease, an off the cuff spontaneity”. Walters says the actors have to “own” the language “as if it’s absolutely the way they speak and that’s it”. I’m not sure what else they should or could say when the director is so obviously out looking for verisimilitude and horsemen galloping by rather than anything unadventurous and obviously theatrical. Palace scenes, at Westminster or York, are filmed in the 12 -14th century St David’s cathedral, Pembrokeshire. Battles are on open, frozen ground; and why not the Welsh Marches for the Battle of Shrewsbury? (No real matter that that it was actually fought in late July.) The Boar’s Head Tavern in Eastcheap looks the business: loud, sprawling, low ceilinged, poorly lit, and with chamber pots being carried out from the rooms above where Doll Tearsheet and her kind are busy.
Falstaff (Russell Beale) carries all before him. Corrupt, corrupting, voluble, expansive, outrageous, tender (with his Doll), ‘a grand Capitaine of mischeefe whom they ennobel with the title Lorde of Misrule’ (from Philip Stubbes’ Anatomie of Abuses,1585); a sage from the stews. Part of the delight to be had in Beale’s performance is to watch his eyes, where calculation, wit, joy and fear are in constant motion. It is to Eyre’s credit that he retains the near ludicrous scenes between Sir John and Justice Shallow, who recalls a time (impossible!) when young Jack Falstaff was a pageboy to Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, and on speaking terms with John of Gaunt. Listen up for Beale’s ability to speak occasional lines with the style and smoothness of the courtier.
Jeremy Irons commands your attention, which is what a king should do. His verse delivery is full-on resonant majestic, even at his most hollow eyed and haunted. Take as an example his speech that opens Act 3 (at 33.08). Despite his nightgown it’s gravitas all the way as he walks along a moonlit cloister with guards half-asleep at their posts. Tom Hiddleston has the harder part, playing the waster, dunked in a beer trough, with the resolve and looks of a prince from central casting. He can’t be dissolute, agreed, but he needn’t appear quite so buttoned-up. Even his smiles look stitched on. He’s at his best over Hotspur’s dead body, when he’s alone and can be compassionate, and when, dismissing Falstaff, he needn’t pretend that he’s not powerful. It promises well for his performance as Henry V.
For these plays are about the exercise of power and how that shapes a country. And the films try to do the same. Their on-stage action and their characters have become public property, in England at any rate, by virtue of their projection of ‘History’ from a time when that was a popular chronicle. Falstaff’s genius is that Shakespeare has him straddle both the private and the public realm. That’s why he’s grown fat (!) and never so drunk on Spanish white that he doesn’t make sense. He’s an outsize domain all of his own. Hotspur, at least in this film cast, is his closest companion. Joe Armstrong plays Percy Jnr. with a blazing, aggrieved energy, that makes him every bit as dangerous to the person of the Prince (and to the crown) as ‘that vilanous abominable misleader of youth, Falstaff, that old white-bearded Satan’.
Hal kills Hotspur at Shrewsbury – and it’s an ugly, brutal, sequence. And so, with ‘ill weav’d ambition’ in the mud’, the blooded Prince does not have him to contend with in Part Two. Falstaff, alone, threatens the security of the realm until he is finally taken out by a combination of Henry’s accession and the Lord Chief Justice (perfect for Geoffrey Palmer). Part One is the more exhilarating film and it succeeds in promoting Part Two, which can be eagerly anticipated. It helps if you watch with only a brief interval between the two ‘shows’.
Next ‘up’, from ‘The Hollow Crown’ is Henry V with Tom Hiddleston as Henry.
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