July 14, 2012, by Peter Kirwan
The Hollow Crown: 2 Henry IV @ BBC2
Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00s91qj
Part Three of the BBC’s Hollow Crown series, again directed by Richard Eyre, concludes the Henry IV plays. Once again it is a lavish, visually rich, sensitively acted interpretation, with a great deal to recommend it. But where 1 Henry IV was full of life, variety, powerhouse acting and intelligent use of televisual conventions, 2 Henry IV is quite frankly very, very dull.
It’s not the fault of any of the performers. Tom Hiddleston is melancholy and brooding as an increasingly conflicted Hal; Simon Russell Beale is moving as the wounded, desperate Falstaff; and the rest of the company are uniformly game in following Eyre’s interpretation. The difficult with this version is that everyone seems depressed. All humour has been stripped out of the scenes, replaced by sentimental music and the overwhelming sense of age and decrepitude approaching. Yet even Chimes at Midnight, which popularised this as a reading of the Henry IV plays, had some fun along the way. Considering that so much of Henry IV is funny – Hal and Poins disguised as servants (cut), Shallow and Silence providing country nostalgia (here located in a frozen, wintry setting), the recruitment of the soldiers, the bickering between Falstaff and the Justice – Eyre seems determined to wrench Meaning from every glance, a tear from every encounter. In this world, everyone knows what is coming and is not looking forward to a world of change.
The recruitment scene is a case in point. It’s very difficult not to play this as comedy, and there are clear attempts to draw a laugh as the reluctant soldiers push each other, bark loudly or are simply cast very small (Wart). But the scene is so quiet and sober that the laughs simply don’t come across. Instead, the climax is Feeble stepping forward to be pricked, making a stand for stoic acceptance while violins begin stirring underneath. The point is made – that there is nobility in the pathetic attempts of the amateur soldier to find courage. But the lack of comedic contrast deprives it of its force, and instead the scene seems simply to be attempting to get to this point.
Similarly, Eastcheap is tainted throughout by sadness. The opening arrest of Falstaff by Julie Walters’s excellent Mistress Quickly begins promisingly, with two amusing constables attempting to draw sword and Falstaff defending himself, while Tom Georgeson’s Bardolph flaps and Quickly hangs on Falstaff’s shoulder, finally pulling them all down into the mud. But as Geoffrey Palmer’s austere Lord Chief Justice demands to know the cause, the scene becomes all sincerity, with Quickly genuinely pleading and Falstaff defending himself, before talking her back into his grace. Beale’s Falstaff is wonderful at suggesting the desperate sadness that underpins a man who knows he is far past his prime, but he lacks the sparkle of wit that makes his manipulation of the hostess so sharp. His liaison with Maxine Peake’s relatively lively Doll Tearsheet sees her rolling on top of him, but he quickly getting to a point of tiredness, murmuring "I’m old" as she rolls off him, leaving even this scene in a mood of morbid reflection. Hal and Poins, listening above, burst through the ceiling and thoroughly castigate the old man before marching out in anger, leaving Falstaff and the two women sat sorrowfully on the bed. There is no banter, no engagement, nothing to come down from – it is as if Falstaff’s rejection hda already occurred, and the two hours of this film is merely playing out an already established fact.
The mood is, of course, not entirely inappropriate to the whole of the play. Jeremy Irons is, once again, riveting as the fading King. In an early scene, he rolls dice compulsively as he tells his sons to make peace with their brother, playing out his anxiety in a telling gesture. The highlight of the film is his midnight stroll around the castle, walking past silent guards and speaking his troubles out loud, before grandly opening the doors to the throne room and announcing "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown". His illness is apparent throughout, and he enters convulsions immediately after the report of John’s victory is received. As he moves towards his end, his reconciliation with Hal is deeply felt and moving as he finally succumbs and falls into his son’s arms.
Hiddleston’s admirers are served by a faintly homoerotic first appearance in a bathing room, as he and Poins (David Dawson) lounge in towels and receive Bardolph. Yet from the start, there is no fun left in Hal, no relapse into enjoyment of prodigality. He tells Poins in all sincerity of his sadness for his father, and after taking the crown from his father’s bedside he moves to the throne, sits in it and weeps openly. Elsewhere, everything is tears. Alun Armstrong’s Northumberland weeps next to a lake. The three younger sons of Henry stand heads bowed before the Lord Chief Justice. The rebels accept their defeat in a mood of initial shock but ultimate acceptance. And the "chimes at midnight" moment sees Falstaff gazing into the middle distance of his own mortality, while even Shallow doesn’t see the humour in the memories he evokes.
A bit of life is found in a kinetic chase scene as horsemen track down the fleeing soldiers who make up the remanants of the rebels, cutting them down along the way and sending Dominic Rowan’s Coleville rolling down a bank into the sword of the straggling Falstaff. Henry Faber offers a sincere and earnest John, who takes great pains to convince the rebels first before James Laurenson’s Westmoreland delivers the crushing order in a tent as soldiers surround the rebels. This breath of fresh air helps alleviate the monotony of tone, albeit even the normally amusing capture of Coleville is played dead straight.
The scourging of Eastcheap is intercut with Falstaff’s disgrace, the women pullled away by their hair, and again the jokes omitted. Paul Ritter’s Pistol is poorly served throughout by heavily cut scenes and a refusal to allow him to dominate the scene in the way the early records suggest, rendering his scenes relatively without impact, though he puts up a spirited fight in the final scene as the soldiers press in. However, the turning away of Falstaff is quite wonderful. Falstaff pushes through the crowds and past the soldiers creating a corridor to stand centrally with Hal. Hiddleston is utterly straight-faced, speaking down at the tiny knight and whispering harshly to him before raising his voice to ensure all the onlookers get the benefit of his renouncement. Yet it is Beale who shines here. He desperately tries to retain some hope, preparing a joke which is quashed before he opens his mouth, and ends the interview weeping openly before staggering away, leaning heavily on a cane, and finally being picked up by a rush of guards. The scene – and film – closes on Falstaff as he is dragged out into the open, the time slowing to a halt as Falstaff’s face freezes in a look of utter sorrow.
Eyre’s refusal to find variety or humour in the film works to its detriment. While the film does its essential job – demonstrate the mechanisms by which Hal casts off his fellows and becomes a sober king – the journey feels as if it has already been completed, and instead these are the final tickings of Falstaff’s life, the slow drawing out of an inevitable conclusion. Beautifully shot and well performed, and often deeply moving (especially Beale) – but it’s not enough to perform this play at one note.
Thank you for so eloquently identifying what I could not—that which bothered me throughout watching Henry IV part 2. Never having seen or read these particular works of Shakespeare (the Hollow Crown tetralogy) I nonetheless had some awareness and expectation of Falstaff…and much familiarity w/how Shakespeare’s most serious works still leak humour now and again. Something nagged at me in every place you note, and now it becomes apparent what was so discomforting. Having said all that…I still enjoyed the watching.
I will watch all the others (going back to catch up on those two sections missed, before Henry V is aired) but afterward will certes rush here to peruse your take on each. Thank you for choosing to apply your gifts in this manner!
Thanks for your kind words Lysandwr, hope you enjoy the rest!
Thanks for this, Pete – this has really got me thinking. Funnily enough, I much preferred Part 2 to Part 1 – I was bothered by what I saw as a paring-down of the humour in Part 1, and I really missed the sense of complicity with Falstaff one often finds in theatre productions (the direct-to-camera stuff came far too late, I thought, and the honour speech was a wasted opportunity). I found it hard to like any of the characters, and I felt the play’s dynamic oscillation between the cold, hard world of the court and the warm, funny world of Eastcheap had been flattened into a movement between two equally political, self-serving spaces. Then I dwelt on this for a bit, and I realised that that actually made for a really interesting reading of the plays. (The presence of Iain Glen and Harry Lloyd also made me wonder whether Game of Thrones had been a direct influence on the conception of the productions.) By the time Part 2 came around, I was ready for something bleak and political. I actually found Falstaff a lot more sympathetic in Part 2 now that I’d stopped insisting that he make me laugh, and I found the climax really moving.
I know what you mean Steve, and it’s a reading I appreciate theoretically, but I felt that Part 1 realised it much better. There were too many part of Part 2 where it seemed to me they were labouring for comedy (especially the recruitment scene) but had no real interest in it; and a two hour mood piece, however effective, is still two hours long. I wasn’t sure I even found it especially political – Part 1 yes, where Eastcheap was fleshed out, vibrant and a genuine threat to the court; here, it seemed to me it had already been shrugged off, by Hal and by Eyre.
I have been watching the Hollow Crown and i have enjoyed it very much, the acting i think has been very good. Some people have said that Simon Russell Beale’s Falstaff is lacking pathos i don’t agree. I think his Falstaff has all the elements that the character needs. I have a collection of Shakespeare’s plays on DVD filmed in the late 70’s and early 80’s by the BBC in which Anthony Quale plays Falstaff in Henry 1V and Richard Griffiths plays Falstaff in the Merry Wives of Windsor both play the part differently but i think both actors are equally good in their characterizations. The actors in the Hollow Crown like Jeremy Iron’s i think are very polished as Shakespeare can’t be easy to convey to some viewers because of the language and some people don’t always understand what the play is about unless they have some background knowledge of what they are watching regarding Shakespeare. I am looking forward to Henry V as i personally think that some of the verse in that is some of the best that Shakespeare ever wrote for instance the St Crispin day speech.