Henry IV parts I & II, 2012

dir. Richard Eyre & Adam Lee Hamilton

This is a review for episodes 2 & 3 of The Hollow Crown (2012) BBC series.


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Sorry. No. It's not you, it's me. I wish things could be different but here we are. You take the kettle and I'll keep the dog. I mean, damn, Simon Russell Beale, I do love you. You are a legend, a national treasure, a face known by many as that of a beloved character intimate to them. But you are nowhere near fat enough to play Falstaff. Seriously, what the hell were they thinking? Anyone who's seen the 1979 version directed by David Giles and starring Anthony Quayle as everybody's favourite drunkard will know just how obese Falstaff needs to be in order to make the lines actually funny (as in, rolling on the floor clutching your sides funny) as opposed to just being boring old Shakespeare that people in the know assure you is funny but is not really funny funny because it can't make you laugh. Russell Beale does the best a man of his physique can – but it's not enough. I'm quite sure they actually tried to pad his clothes out to make more of him. And there's another problem: catering his performance for the screen (and no doubt under the direction of Richard Eyre) he portrays a very introspective Falstaff who speaks at room temperature and thinks almost as much as he talks. I personally always felt Falstaff was more of a talker than a thinker. As though this violation of Falstaff's majestic nature were not sacrilegious enough already, the sound technician was obviously a space cadet because the sound quality of Russell Beale's lines is awful. Seriously, go on the net and look up other people's reviews; everyone agrees it sounds like an angry bumblebee trapped in a drain pipe. Always sharing inexplicably morose private moments with Hal and shuffling his feet nervously like a shy schoolboy creeping unwillingly to school. No sir, I am so very sorry, but this is not intended to be a funny Falstaff. I'm sure some arty dramatist will spin you something about 'sad meets funny', 'satire' and 'mixed elements of dirge and mirth'. But all that speculation amounts to one inescapable problem: what's the entertainment value of Falstaff if he isn't funny? Maybe there were a few chortles in part 2 but part 1 would not cut the mustard on Saturday Night Stand-up. And – though far be it for me to tell anyone what they should and should not do with Shakespeare – the tavern scenes are not particularly fun if they are not funny. Still, an interesting experiment this 'sad Falstaff'. Too bad it didn't work.

 

 

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Then there is Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal. Perhaps it was the severe lack of extras, perhaps it was because his Falstaff was not fat enough, perhaps it was because the set was just too darn hot and his make-up was running but whatever the reason Prince Hal was the only thing less funny than Falstaff. Oh sure, Hiddleston is easy on the eyes and no doubt can do no wrong in the eyes of a thousand budding schoolgirls up and down the country. But for us real men, this bloke was not the sort of yuppy you'd expect to find at the local drinking a pint of Guinness. In all likelihood, I expect it was because Mr. Hiddleston has not enjoyed the necessary life-experiences to relate to the character. Prince Hal is a true ragamuffin. He is a rapscallion, a whipper-snapper (all terms used to describe him by Falstaff) and when we see a good production of Henry IV part 1 we get the mischievous sense of our first teenage years 'out on the town', laughing uncontrollably at things which are plainly not that funny and incessantly goading on then putting down the group scapegoat (Hal's is Falstaff). This was not done. Instead, we get the worst of Hal's nature as a relentless bully and none of the endearing cheeky-chappy qualities which make his bullying so irresistibly laughable and his wicked nature so irresistibly likeable. In his defence, there were not enough extras to back up the tavern scenes which probably did not help Hiddleston to really get down and dirty with the local riff-raff. You can't say say 'oh, but in a theatre only a few extras is enough' because in a theatre you have the audience laughing along too. A studio rammed full of extras would have been well worth the investment. Hell, if I'd been directing it, real alcohol would have been flowing too!

 

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Okay, so those were the things I didn't like about the movie. Thank God then for Jeremy Irons, who snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in kingly fashion. Just as John of Guant and Richard II could hardly be improved upon in Hollow Crown episode 1, Jeremy Irons' Henry IV is similarly flawless. He captures both the insecurity and the determination of Henry IV in his own unique style quite unlike that of Jon Finch 30 years before (who is also great by the way, just a bit more one-dimensional). Irons's Henry is three-dimensional; he is The King, of that there can be no doubt and although uneasy lies the crown on his sleepy head there is 'such a divinity as does hedge' him. Secondly, he is The Father. The big slap is wonderfully timed and whenever we see him chastising his son I for one practically felt like I had been caught with my hand in the cookie-jar myself! And thirdly, even after 'all these years' (a sense of time passed which Irons creates with ever increasingly deep scowls) he is The Usurper, Bolingbroke, the banished knight who lost a father and murdered his cousin for the throne. Of course, we don't feel that way. But he does, no matter how he tries to run from that feeling and even though he never says it out loud we know it's constantly on his mind; the very definition of a subtle performance glossed over with the grandeur of a true Thespian. The best of both worlds.

 

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There are plenty of other strong performances too; Maxine Peake plays an unusually engaging Doll Tearsheet and Julie Walters is a great Mistress Quickly. There is also as The Lord Chief Justice played by Geoffrey Palmer who has excellent dramatic chemistry with Russell Beale. But when it comes to the supporting cast in Henry IV part 1, one role always steals the show; Hotspur. Played by Joe Armstrong, his performance reminds me of Tim Piggot-Smith, full of hot mettle and vaulting ambition which leaps and o'er-bounds itself. His lover Kate played by Michelle Dockery is of a matching standard and together they make up for some of the laughs lost in The Boar's Head. His real life father, Alun Armstrong, plays his father in this story and that's pretty cool I guess, he's certainly up to the part. So it is, Armstrong ensures the battle scene at the end of part 1 is the most entertaining moment of the series. I kind of wish Hotspur could defeat Hal and then we'd be stuck with the better actor. Anyway, he didn't and he doesn't but at least we get to see a few limbs hacked off and all in all the end of part 1 is indeed a fulfilling climax, a good meaty battle-scene to wash it all down.

 

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Part 2 has its moments as well, though less visually stimulating there are better all round performances. As I have explained, Irons masters his role and as a consequence the 'Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown' speech goes down a treat, clearly the best part of the whole movie. The Master Shallow scenes are good – probably the funniest part of the series - and Paul Ritter's Pistol is flippin' super! Another role made the most of, minor as it may be. If ever there is a moment when I can forgive Russell Beale for not being hideously overweight, it's the 'line-'em-up-and-pick-'em' scene when Falstaff is recruiting soldiers. Here, sitting down, Russell Beale does indeed sing the soul of Falstaff and his snide comments to the only species of man arguably lower than himself did manage to bring a smile to my lips that only The Bard could split. As with any negative review, I feel a little ashamed at having accused it so brashly; thus is the nature of an honest critique, we must shoot down in flames what we don't lavish with praise. I'm sure others will think of these two movies as so much more. But Henry V? And my stinking review of that? There are no apologies for that. If I thought Henry IV was a little bit of a wasted opportunity, it was nothing to what was coming next...

 

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