For literature students, Shakespeare is a nightmare. It is always difficult for students to understand Elizabethan English, much less feel the full dramatic power of the plays themselves. To Singaporean GCE ‘A’ Level students who took the GP exam in 2012, the unfamiliarity of archaic terminology became an unfortunate disadvantage when they misconstrued the word “breast” in every way possible.
However, this is a review of the BBC’s The Hollow Crown (2012) , which is a series of four films that depict the Henriad, or the four history plays that Shakespeare wrote: Richard II, followed by Henry IV Parts I and II, and Henry V.
The Hollow Crown features a grand assembly of British actors — experienced thespians and rising stars alike. Produced by Sam Mendes (a.k.a. Kate Winslet’s ex), the cast includes eminent veterans such as Patrick Stewart (Professor Xavier in the X-Men series), Jeremy Irons, David Suchet and Julie Walters and Simon Russell Beale (one of the best Shakespearean actors of this generation). We also have some great stars that modern audiences can easily identify, including Tom Hiddleston (Loki!), Ben Whishaw (Cloud Atlas, The Hour) and Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary from Downton Abbey).
Shakespeare’s history plays are about the power struggles over the royal crown. The story focuses on three consecutive kings. Ben Whishaw is the vain and tragic King Richard II, Jeremy Irons is the battle-weary King Henry IV, and Tom Hiddleston is the bad prince turned good, King Henry V.
Richard II is a performance-driven play, and a very demanding drama for the lead actors. Ben Whishaw delivers a nuanced performance as the naïve, vain but greedy Richard II. Whishaw plays Richard with a feminine affect and the audience may at first feel irritated by the character. The audience will however become more sympathetic as Richard II begins to lose his power and his mind to the future King Henry IV (Rory Kinnear) and Northumberland (David Morrissey). Whishaw’s performance is outstanding and sets a new standard for future portrayals of the King. Patrick Stewart puts up a glowing performance as the ailing John of Gaunt who grieves for his son’s exile. Shakespeare fans might compare Stewart’s performance to the late Sir John Gielgud’s. However, Stewart’s delivery feels more natural and less staged.
Richard II is a lengthy film, and it seems comparatively weaker than the other films in this series. As much as the audience despairs over the tragic downfall of the vainly pompous and perversely sanctimonious King Richard II, the exposition feels draggy and overlong. Despite the supporting cast delivering dramatically powerful performances (such as Lucian Msamati’s Bishop of Carlisle’s fierce speech opposing Henry’s usurpation and David Suchet’s York confronting his son about conspiring to kill Henry) it is a 2½ long hour film, requiring a great deal of patience to see it through to the end.
Henry IV Part I is a much more enjoyable (and less lengthy) film. The father-son conflict between Tom Hiddleston’s wayward Prince Harry and Jeremy Irons’ old King Henry IV resonates with audiences familiar with being the child (or the parent) in such situations. The star performance is not from Jeremy Irons, but from Simon Russell Beale as the greedy Falstaff. Beale’s performance is infectious, and provides much comic relief that was badly needed in Richard II. The most poignant if not memorable scene is Falstaff’s comical banter turning to desperate pleas against his banishment from Prince Harry’s presence, which runs the audience through the emotional gamut. It also gives us a hint about Falstaff’s eventual fate in the next part of Henry IV.
Henry IV also has some gruesome battle scenes that depict the battle between King Henry IV’s forces against the rebellious Northumberland (played by veteran Alun Armstrong). These battle scenes clearly depict the sheer cruelty and bloodiness of war much more starkly than most other Shakespearean productions which gloss over such scenes by focusing their attention instead on the courage of the valiant warriors.
Henry IV Part II returns to a more serious tone similar to Richard II. Jeremy Irons does a wonderful performance as the increasingly ill King, who is worried about his wayward son and at the same time having to deal with more attempted coup d’etats against his rule. Tom Hiddleston’s role as Prince Harry is much smaller in this installment, so essentially Part II is about the death of Prince Harry’s two father-figures, King Henry IV and Falstaff.
The show has two key dramatic scenes that deserve attention. One is the death of King Henry IV in which Jeremy Irons portrays the last moments of a tortured King worrying over the love of his wayward son, his disintegrating kingdom and his unabated guilt for having stolen the crown from his predecessor, Richard II.
Henry IV Part II ‘s final scene is well known to Shakespearean scholars as the most dramatic scene of the entire play. Throughout the play, the audience is set up to feel less and less sympathetic towards an increasingly unlikeable Falstaff who is ultimately rejected by his old friend and new King, Henry V (Tom Hiddleston). Hiddleston is excellent in his dispassionate and merciless rejection of Falstaff, while Beale’s facial expressions say it all. From a face brimming with the highest of hopes brought down to a haggard, pale face of a heartbroken old man in the depths of despair. Both Hiddleston and Beale have excellent chemistry together and for those who have watched both plays, it is hard not to feel sorry for Falstaff’s tragic downfall at the end.
This brings us now to Henry V with Tom Hiddleston holding the reins. The problem with this version of King Henry V is that one will compare it to either of the Kenneth Branagh or Laurence Olivier films. I personally have watched Branagh’s 1988 version and Hiddleston’s Henry V is just not as inspirational as Branagh’s. Perhaps it might be due to age difference: compared to Branagh’s older Henry V, Hiddleston’s younger Henry V is less convincing about having graduated from his wayward ways or maturing much more beyond his dialogue and his moustache.
Another bugbear is the way the film’s directors have taken much liberty to remove parts of King Henry V. The first long speech by the Archbishop of Canterbury (Charles Kay delivers a sharp and delicate performance of this speech in Branagh’s film) detailing Henry’s claim to the French crown was curtailed terribly. There are also plenty of not-so-subtle changes to the text which would be a disappointment to viewers familiar with Branagh’s version or even the text itself.
It may be unfair to keep comparing this film to Branagh’s excellent production, but Branagh’s supporting cast including Sir Derek Jacobi, Brian Blessed, Dame Judi Dench and Paul Scofield is arguably the greatest Shakespearean cast assembled at that time. In contrast, The Hollow Crown’s Henry V has the weakest supporting cast — apart from John Hurt (as Chorus) and Julie Walters (as Mistress Quickly) — even compared to its own three previous installments.
Nevertheless, Henry V is still a decent Shakespearean film that evokes the common themes of loyalty and war well. The best scene is neither from the battle sequences, nor the St Crispin Day’s Speech (not heroic enough in my opinion). It is the final scene, where we see the young boy in Henry’s funeral morph into John Hurt’s haunting Chorus who makes a final poetic yet sullen speech to end the play. It is one of the most rewarding scenes and transitions I have seen in quite a while.
On the whole, as much as the cast of The Hollow Crown performs amazingly well individually, I have some problems when it comes to specific casting choices. Although these films are separate productions, one would expect the same cast members to retain the same roles throughout the series. I mean, it isn’t very comfortable to see David Morrissey play Northumberland and then see a visibly different actor like Alun Armstrong play the same role in another installment. Likewise, I still can’t visualize Rory Kinnear ageing convincingly into Jeremy Irons. Sorry.
Apart from these bugbears, I applaud the BBC for giving a refreshing take on such ancient subject matter. It’s not been since Ian Mckellen’s Richard III (1995), that television and film viewers have seen Shakespeare portrayed in a more modern and different light. The Hollow Crown series is thus a must-watch for Shakespeare fans.