I was privileged to be invited to a screening at the British Museum on Friday night of the new BBC film version of Henry V, the fourth part of its Hollow Crown tetralogy, which also includes Richard II and Henry IV parts I and II.
The season is a BBC co-production with Sam Mendes’ Neal Street Productions, NBC Universal and WNET Thirteen; this particular film is the directorial début of Thea Sharrock, whose theatre credits include the superb revival of Equus a few years ago, which starred Daniel Radcliffe, and more recently a wonderful As You Like It at the Globe. It was adapted for the screen by Ben Power, of the Royal National Theatre.
With all due caveats with regard to the fact that this is the final part of a four-film series and I have yet to see the previous three, I thought I should share a few brief thoughts on the production – and its star, Tom Hiddleston.
The film opens with a child picking a flower for the funeral of Henry V*, over whose obsequies we hear the great opening speech from the Chorus – ‘O, for a muse of fire, etc’ – intoned not without a certain dolour. Thus Shakespeare’s rich and playful rhetoric is immediately undercut, and a frame for the film emerges: its subject is really human transience, the fleeting glories of flesh and fame.
There’s an exchange in Henry IV, part 1 where Falstaff asks the young Prince Hal for the time and Hal replies: “What a devil hast thou to do with the time of the day?” The truth is, though, as Hollow Crown reminds us, that time catches up with us all – as it does with Falstaff and Bardolph and Henry himself – however passing brave our boasts as we flit from eternity to eternity.
As is usually the case, it is revealing to note which scenes have been stripped from the play in its transition to the screen. Gone from this version are many of the scenes among the ordinary men at Agincourt – most notably featuring Fluellen, MacMorris and Jamy. Gone is much of the vanity and brutality of the French: we see a brief glimpse of their languorous crowing before dawn breaks on the day of battle; we do not see their slaughter of the young boys guarding the English baggage train. The effect of such excisions is to focus attention almost exclusively on Henry and his anxieties: this Henry V might be subtitled ‘the psychology of power’, and it is certainly as much a psychological study of Henry and his kingship as it is a history.
Gone too are the treasons revealed in Southampton and Henry’s merciless response, which in the play serve to underscore Henry’s newfound confidence, his moral clarity and kingship. They have no place here.
This instead is a modern Henry, uncertain as to the morality of political and military power, and more uncertain still of his personal fitness to exercise it. Hiddleston’s Henry seems at war with himself as well as the French, a man trying to persuade himself as much as his audience when he speaks.
He is a man trying his best to act as he thinks a great king must behave, not a man who has assumed greatness by mere inheritance of the throne. (When I watch it next I will pay closer attention to the moments Hiddleston removes or replaces his crown.)
But the introspection of Hiddleston’s performance helps brings out something of the piety and moral seriousness of the historical Henry V, too. His is not the piety of certainty, however; it is the piety of doubt. This makes for a surprisingly intimate and powerful reading: the prayer before battle, for example, was unexpectedly moving, genuinely beseeching the God of battles not to desert him, truly fearful lest he should suffer God’s judgement for his father’s crimes against Richard II.
It is an intense and charismatic performance, although much of that nervous intensity seems directed inwards, even in some of the great set-piece speeches with which the play is littered. This sense of intimacy – of a film about a private man who has had kingship forced upon him rather than about a king as a necessarily public figure – is amplified by the fact that, even as leader of the English army, he never speaks to large numbers of people: before the walls at Harfleur and again before battle at Agincourt, Henry doesn’t address his exhortations to many more than 15 or 20 men.
It almost comes as no surprise then that this Henry should die so young: you feel sure he would have burned himself out, consumed by responsibilities and rituals he felt compelled by history to assume. It will be interesting to see the young Prince Hal in the Hollow Crown’s Henry IV, since I had the strong impression that Hiddleston’s king was still essentially that same young man, acting out a role he is fated to perform, but in some senses betraying himself as he does so.
Modern Henry V’s struggle with the powerful tone of glorious belligerence that runs through the play, and this is not an exception. In some senses, this is a shame, since if we do not share such certainties now about prerogative and power, about war and its spoils, then the play can help remind us that people have not always thought like us, but have been fully moral people nonetheless. A history that fails to acknowledge difference is no history at all.
Moreover, the play celebrates Henry’s wars even as it reminds us of their futility and waste. To emphasise the latter and downplay the former creates an imbalance and needlessly drains complexity and ambiguity from Shakespeare’s work.
But still, this is a superbly acted and thought-provoking reading of the play. In particular, the language is spoken with wonderful, indeed exemplary, clarity and sense – something that is unfortunately much rarer than it should be in productions of early-modern theatre – and the cast is consistently, faultlessly strong, with even the most minor of roles being sharply and memorably characterised.
The most striking of the secondary characters, for me, was Anton Lesser as Henry’s uncle, the Duke of Exeter. Indeed, Exeter’s strength of character and evidently acute judgement throughout is an interesting foil for Henry here, and you sense that this Henry needs – and receives – the advice and support of his councillors on an emotional as well as a political and intellectual level: a band of brothers indeed.
* The original version of this post had the funeral as Henry IV’s. That was my mistake – kindly corrected by
@thelifeof_rose, who played a street mourner in the scene and contacted me via Twitter to query what I had written. Many thanks to her for helping me get it right!
My reviews of the other films in the series are here: Richard II, Henry IV. I have also posted an account of the Q&A with Sam Mendes, Sir Richard Eyre and Simon Russell Beale after the screening of Henry IV at the BFI.