Saturday, 4 August 2012

Crowning Glory

I've neglected this for so long that I'm going to attempt to get through all parts two to four of The Hollow Crown in one (hopefully not too long) post.

Perhaps the main reason it's taken me this long to get round to writing on the Henry IV films is that both were so almost-perfect that it was difficult to think of much to say on them other than "great job!" Both films looked fabulous, and managed to weigh up the ideal balance of comedy and tragedy, especially through the character of Falstaff.

Simon Russell Beale absolutely shone in this role. Despite being primarily a stage actor, Beale more than proved his screen acting abilities, conveying Falstaff's every mood from mirth to misery with a convincing and compelling subtlety. Beale's Falstaff was one with a complex inner life beneath his foolish facade, and one that instantly captured its audience's heart. One criticism that I have heard levelled at this Falstaff is that he perhaps seemed over-aware of his inevitable end at a very early stage in the story. It's true there was a certain melancholy present in the tavern scene where Hal and Falstaff take turns playing the King. Personally, however, I felt this was nicely done: a concession to those of us who knew where things were headed, garnering greater sympathy, but not too heavy-handed, and certainly not enough to give away the ending to those who didn't already know it (and pleasingly, I'm sure there were a fair few of these, mainly for the reason I'll explain below).

More of a surprise for me was the strength of Tom Hiddleston's performance. Along, I suspect, with many other viewers, my only previous encounters with Hiddleston have been in the recent Marvel films, Thor and The Avengers. These weren't exactly positive or promising experiences: in the first, Hiddleston's Loki was the worst of many unengaging characters in a terrible, terrible film; in the second, he was amongst the least interesting characters in a reasonably entertaining romp. Now, having seen him do a bit of serious acting, I can safely say I've been a bit unfair to poor old Tom - it's not really his fault it was a bad role. Actually, Loki really ought to have been the only interesting character in Thor - or at least would have been if they'd actually thought to take a look at a bit of Norse mythology. Loki is an ambiguous, amoral trickster, not a brooding, self-pitying emo, but that's another story.... In any case, I'd begun to have an inkling that I'd misjudged him after reading some very intelligent things he'd written elsewhere (see esp.), and The Hollow Crown definitely confirmed this. As the young Prince Harry, he gave a beautifully nuanced performance - good enough to make me wonder why I've never seen him do Shakespeare on stage before. I also suspect that his presence in the film will be responsible for turning a significant number of young girls to Shakespeare, which, however scary the Hiddlestonettes may be, is probably no bad thing.

Also a surprise was Poins. Usually a fairly minimal character who seems little more than an accessory to Hal's and Falstaff's escapades, David Dawson's Poins actually stood out independently with a personality of his own. Within that little circle, too, I was impressed by the lads they had playing Falstaff's page across the series (though I didn't really buy the ending with them turning into John Hurt - I'm sure the character is actually meant to die in Henry V).

I really enjoyed Alun and Joe Armstrong as the dangerous Northumbrian rebels. The Percy family were a powerful one who continued to cause problems for the monarchy many, many years after this play is set (Funnily enough, I'm currently proofreading a novel for someone which details their involvement in plots against the Queen during Shakespeare's own time). Joe Armstrong in particular, who I hadn't come across before, was just fantastic as the hot-headed and hyperactive Hotspur. His scenes with Glyndwr and his daughter were hilarious. I did find the first scene between Hotspur and his wife a little uncomfortable. It was overly aggressive: I think really that their "argument" in this scene is meant more as flirtatious banter than domestic abuse. Still, this was made up for well enough in their later interaction, where their actual feelings for each other are made clear. I think this is important: one of the few things we can probably safely assume about Shakespeare is that he was keen on companionate couples, as opposed to marrying for money or titles or even looks, and all the unconvincingly schlocky and slightly creepy romantic wooing that tended to go with all of these (see especially Much Ado About Nothing).

If I had one major quibble with Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 in this series, it might be the over-sympathetic interpretation of Harry. I'm aware there are different ways of understanding a story, and just because I've always understood him as cold and calculating doesn't necessarily mean that everyone has to. The trouble is that if you ignore his "nastier" side, certain actions of his later on seem to make very little sense, especially once you get on to Henry V. The giveaway that something sinister is cooking in his head is in one of his all-important soliloquies, which in this production was done (rather well, on the whole) in voiceover. Unfortunately, the production ignored the clues in this speech that Harry is simply using Falstaff and his lower ranking "friends" so that he can learn how to win over the commoners to his cause once he is king. Mostly, the potential problems caused by this are evaded, at least in Henry IV, Part 2. When Hal finally severs ties with Falstaff, it's portrayed as a painful moment for him: his kingly role has forced him to relinquish his adolescent habits and companions. Some of his more Machiavellian actions in Henry V, however, were either given rather forced explanations (as when his order to kill all the French prisoners is interpreted through the prism of his boring brother's death), or just left at odds with the character in general (as in the final wooing scene).

While I'm on the subject of continuity, however, there was a bit of an issue with Henry IV himself. This was not so much the fault of those involved in the Henry plays, as it was a problem carried over from the interpretation of this character in Richard II. While in Henry IV the old king openly confesses his intentional usurpation of the crown, the younger Henry (as I previously mentioned) in Richard II seemed strangely confused and bewildered by Richard's voluntary hand-over of power. While some time has clearly elapsed between the end of Richard II and the beginning of Henry IV, Part 1, it's not enough for us to actually accept that these completely different actors and characters are supposed to represent the same historical figure. It seems odd that Richard II should stand out so much from the other three films, which at least all more or less seem to follow on from each other. Richard II doesn't feel like part of the same series.

On to Henry V then.....which, though not bad, was, I felt, considerably less impressive than its two immediate predecessors - perhaps less so, in fact, even than Richard II. The reasons for this were firstly its lack of ambition, and secondly the director's apparently scant knowledge of the film medium. While Richard II had its flaws, it at least attempted to do something exciting, interesting and innovative. It was, furthermore, very much a film. In comparison with the "Henrys", Richard II is rather a stiff sort of play, with lots of standing around talking and not doing much else. This makes it all the more impressive that Rupert Goold found all sorts of ways to make it into a visually engaging film. Thea Sharrock, on the other hand, somehow managed to do the opposite. In general, the battle scenes in Henry V worked well, but it wasn't really enough to bring the whole thing up to scratch. In many ways, Henry V is Richard II's polar opposite: so much stuff happens in this play that it's really quite a poor show if the story comes across as even slightly dull. Sharrock seemed not to know when and where to cut unnecessary dialogue, as well as not knowing how to make best use of the cameras. There was relatively little camera movement and few exciting shots, even at important moments in the story. One of the most obvious examples of both of these problems is when, towards the end of the play, the Duke of Burgundy mediates between Hal and the King of France. The shot is boring, stiff and the speech and scene in general just go on far too long.

When I said earlier that continuity was kept across the three "Henry" plays, I wasn't being entirely accurate. There was one glaringly obvious leap, which was when the oldest of Hal's brothers morphed from Henry Faber into Paterson Joseph. It was an ill-advised decision. In this case, the younger, less experienced actor was better. I can understand the child actors changing through the three films, but Faber was old enough to be stuck with, and besides, there's so little for the Duke of York to do in Henry V that it seemed completely pointless to employ a second, more expensive actor. I understand that they were trying to make more of his character in this film in order to justify a rather cruel action on the king's part. It didn't really work, however. Firstly, there just isn't enough material in the script to make enough out of the character to make us care about him - or even, for that matter, to make us believe that Harry does. Secondly, it is a cold-hearted command, and a practical one: there weren't enough English soldiers to guard the French prisoners and to fight at the same time. Thirdly, if they'd wanted a more emotional and sympathetic take on the situation, they could've more legitimately got it from another source: Harry is angry when the French army kill the boys guarding the camp, and nothing was really done with this.

Overall, I guess this Henry V would have made a passing decent stage shoe, if not a particularly extraordinary one. As a film though, it was second-rate, and made a disappointingly anti-climactic close to a generally excellent series.

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