Review: The Hollow Crown: Henry IV parts I and II

Once again, I was fortunate enough to be invited to a BFI screening of two films in the BBC’s new Hollow Crown season, Henry IV parts I and II, both directed by Sir Richard Eyre. There was a Q&A afterwards in which executive producer Sam Mendes interviewed Eyre and Simon Russell Beale, who stars as Falstaff. I have blogged an account of the Q&A here.

I should probably say that the two parts of Henry IV are among my very favourite Shakespeare plays and certainly my favourite among the histories – and Orson Welles’ Falstaff adaptation, Chimes At Midnight is my some measure my favourite Shakespeare film – so I approached Eyre’s contributions to the Hollow Crown tetralogy with both excitement and trepidation.

The first thing to say is that, once again, the performances are matchless. Jeremy Irons as Henry IV dominates – no mean feat in a play that also features Falstaff – hollowed out though he is by the burden of the crown. He is a man, as Prince Hal himself notes, eaten away by the responsibilities of power – and by the knowledge of what was done in order for him to claim it. And he is eaten away too by his son’s apparent recklessness and contempt for what Henry has bought so dearly, by the fear that Hal will fail to redeem his Plantagenat inheritance, and throw away all that Henry won. The correlation between the health of the body politic and the health of the king has rarely been more eloquently portrayed.

The casting of father and son actors Alun and Joe Armstrong as Northumberland and Hotspur is a stroke of brilliance. In particular – and not to take anything away from Alan Armstrong – Joe is the best Hotspur I have ever seen. As a rule, I have tended to find the character something of a swaggering boorish dullard, but here the force of the man’s blunt personality was almost intoxicating: high on emotion, with a compelling, passionate, willful charm, he was a genuine counterpoint to the self-contained and withheld Prince Hal.

I have written more about Tom Hiddleston as Hal in my review of Henry V. Again, his piety is subtly emphasised here – we see him cross himself several times – and here it serves to show how wrong Henry IV is when he frets that his son might be as feckless a king as Richard II. The quiet contrast between Hal’s purposeful self-doubt – his spiritual humility –and the religiouse self-pitying sentiment of Richard II is understated but highly effective.

And if Hiddleston seems to play Hal with a cool, insouciant self-contained sense of entitlement, the shocked tears when his father slaps him in the face are thrilling. We are startled to see the mask Hal has made for himself break, so that he is again the frightened, adoring son eager for his father’s approval. It’s a brilliant moment, laying bare Hal’s vulnerability, his frailty, while also further clarifying his relationships with Falstaff and his father, and his rivalry with Hotspur too.

I think of the plays as dominated by Falstaff, but Eyre’s versions – in line with the whole season’s focus on the idea of kingship – place as least as much emphasis on the young Prince Hal’s troubled relationship with his father, Henry IV, as with his wayward, overweight tutor. Inevitably, in reducing the plays to two-hour films much has been lost, and it is perhaps Falstaff and the Boar’s Head that suffers most from this.

Falstaff is nothing if not an expansive character – in every sense of the word – and inevitably to cut him is to reduce him. Falstaff lives a life of happenstance and appetite in a perpetual Now, imagining his world afresh whenever he speaks, reckless of the passing time, and it is his particular tragedy that he pins his hopes for redemption on Hal whose providential destiny is fixed by his paternal inheritance, and who cannot but help betray Falstaff’s dream simply by being party to it.

But Falstaff needs space to spread his charm, which to some extent the edits here deny him. Hal’s betrayal of Falstaff is foreshortened, his slightly bullying, bating tensions with the Boar’s Head rabble foregrounded.

Beale’s Falstaff caught his sly, glancing wit perfectly, and his slow descent into the desperate melancholy of age and failure, but I would have liked to see more of the character’s slow, beguiling, quixotic charm.

I should really also mention Maxine Peake, whose Doll Tearsheet is extraordinary, sliding perfectly between a blunt, angry, brutalised hurt and a tender untouchable humanity.

But there are lovely little moments everywhere here: Henry IV forgetting Walter Blount’s name; Doll Tearsheet being unable to read the papers Hal steals from Falstaff’s pocket;
Falstaff’s own half-wounded, half-stabbing “Depose me?” to Hal as they play-act the king.

Mendes’ stated aim as producer was to make four films, not four films of more-or-less theatrical productions. On that basis, I would say that Eyre’s are the most successful of the four: his films have more confidence and energy in the direction than Goold’s or Sharrock’s: the pace is sharper, the cutting more effective, the camerawork fluid and involving where theirs was more static. It is as if the latter were still too wedded to how they might block a scene for the theatre; Henry V, in particular, seemed conceived in permanent mid-shot.

But the biggest criticism I have of the Hollow Crown is that the same actors did not carry the parts of Henry and Northumberland through from Richard II into Henry IV. I have no argument with the individual actors in either film, but there was a real opportunity to see more clearly how Shakespeare’s characters develop through the films, and moreover an opportunity that is unique to this kind of film project.

When challenged about the decision by an audience member in the Q&A afterwards, Sam Mendes seemed rather defensive, citing scheduling conflicts, noting the period of time elapsed between the plays – in fact, only a couple years – and saying that anyway it wasn’t that important. Well, perhaps not, but given that the stated aim was to create a filmic rather than a theatrical experience, the choice was certainly a regrettable one.

But these are minor criticisms, since the series as a whole is a tour de force of imaginative retelling, and each film is superb in its own right, confident in their own visions of the texts and drawing wonderful, sharply delineated performances out of a glorious cast.

My reviews of the other films in the series are here: Richard IIHenry V. 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.

7 thoughts on “Review: The Hollow Crown: Henry IV parts I and II

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  1. Sorry that should be Henry V1 my mistake regarding my comment about Shakespeare’s history plays.

  2. As a fan of Shakespeare’s historical plays i think the BBC has done itself proud regarding the Hollow Crown such wonderful acting. I watched the final play Henry V and thought that Tom Hiddlestone’s performance was quite brilliant as was that of Jeremy Iron’s as Henry 1V and the actor who played Richard 11 I can’t remember his name off hand and Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff. Even the supporting cast where very good actors. The first Shakespeare i ever saw was Laurence Olivier’s film of Richard 111 which really introduced me to the bart i thought his performance so amazing and became an instant fan of both Olivier and the bard. The BBC do make some great Shakespeare i have on DVD a complete Shakespeare collection made by the BBC in the late 70’s and early 80’s with actors like Patrick Stewart, Anthony Hopkins, Clare Bloom, to name but a few. I hope the Hollow Crown was very popular with the TV viewers in this country as i would like the BBC to do Shakespeare’s Henry V11 and Richard 111 to complete the historical plays that Shakespeare wrote. I remember an Age of Kings which came on in the 1960’s another good BBC adaptation of the bards histories.

  3. As someone not steeped in Shakespeare who’s main involvement has been through film and television and the occasional theatre show I found your reviews very helpful.It gave added depth to my understanding of the Hollow Crown series.
    I did in fact stumble on the series by accident one night at the scene where Falstaff and Hal take it in turns to be his father and was immediately emotionally drawn in in part due to the clarity in the delivery of Shakespearian dialogue but more so by the mesmerising performances of both actors.I have now watched all three parts twice and each time i find more to hold my attention,
    This is probably the most accessible Henry’s I have seen and never having been a big fan of Henry the 5th etc I am now looking forward to the fourth part with great excitement.Tom Hiddleston holds my attention throughout and it is fascinating to watch the emotions flicker across his face–mind you the leather look helps as well.
    I also think that you are right that by minimising the more aggressive majestic feel to Hal it allows a modern audience to engage wiih Henry in a way I have never been able to before.Not being that familar with the plays I probably was not aware of the cuts that were made especially in reference to Falstaff but he still came over as someone Hal could care about and I admit to hoping that they would be able to maintain some kind of friendship after he was crowned.
    I have also found the visual backdrops add to the production which is why i intend to watch it one more time to allow them a little more of my attention
    Its this kind of programme that makes the BBC worthwhile.Great entertainment,great art and great perfomances.I only wish the BBC would give us more of this level of drama rather than moving in the direction of populist entertainment which however enjoyable is easily availible on other channels.

    1. Thanks so much for your thoughtful and illuminating comment Cynthia. It’s interesting to hear from someone who comes to it without any particular familiarity with Shakespeare. I think the producers have put a lot of thought and effort into making the plays as accessible as possible and I suspect a lot of the editorial choices have been taken with that in mind in terms of both plot and language.
      It is also very much the sort or production that makes you proud to have the BBC for all its faults. I don’t think there’s another TV company in the world willing to invest in these kinds of projects.

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