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Television Review: The Hollow Crown – Henry V

The Hollow Crown – Henry V (BBC; 2012)

As my analysis of the previous films in the The Hollow Crown series anticipated, the BBC’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Henriad tetralogy of plays builds towards a fever pitch of heroic nationalistic triumph in Henry V. The closing narrative of the four-play arc quickly dispels the ambiguity and conflicted doubt about the impossible weight of the crown that roiled so eloquently in the speech of Henry V’s predecessors in Richard II and Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2.

The Prince Hal who balked at the burdensome responsibility of kingship to revel in proletarian taverns has grown into a monarch of supreme self-confidence who overmasters the fields of battle, of rhetoric, and ultimately of romance as well. Henry V is the victory lap of an indefatigable king forged in the crucible of late medieval power politics and in the opposing interests of Henry IV and Sir John Falstaff, the literal and figurative father figures (respectively) whose most useful qualities Henry V (played again with nearly arrogant poise by Tom Hiddleston) synthesized into his shooting-star reign of foreign military conquest.

Henry V commences with the expression of doubts about the young king’s mettle, but these are all external; he never doubts the reach of his own arm. A herald of the Dauphin (Edward Akrout), the heir to the throne of France, conveys a mock tribute to Henry consisting of a chest full of tennis balls. Although we know that Henry is already contemplating a continental campaign in pursuit of a claim to the French crown, this jesting slight at his expense gives him a convenient excuse to invade France. He replies with the most sabre-rattling set of tennis analogies ever unleashed and raises an army of conquest to spite the snobbish French aristocracy.

Considering the confident proclamations of Harry the King and the successful siege of Harfleur, the pro-English propagandistic trajectory of Shakespeare’s adaptation of the history of Henry V’s campaign makes it a little unclear how exactly the great commander’s forces wind up greatly outnumbered and compelled into a battle he may not have longed for just outside a tiny village named Azincourt. Of course, as both history and one of Shakespeare’s most famous history plays has made inescapably widely-known, Henry V and his ragged band of Englishmen win the day (largely thanks to the use of longbowmen). Shakespeare exaggerated the discrepancy in numbers between the English and French armies to make the unlikely-enough victory even moreso, and imperialistically surrounds his hero-king with regional representatives from across the royal realms, actual and claimed.

Although only the Welsh captain Fluellen (Owen Teale) is prominently featured in The Hollow Crown version, the tone of nationalistic fervour around the campaign (especially in contrast to the hated French, the photo-negative opposite of all that the English conceive of themselves as being) is quite preserved. The martyr’s end of the most prominent English noble casualty, the Duke of York (Paterson Joseph), accomplishes retroactive unifying of fractious historical and regional interests as well as providing a hint of post-modern (if historically laughable) multiculturalism in this particular version. A century following the divisive internecine power struggles of the War of the Roses, the Bard hearkened back to a Duke of York dying nobly in the service of a king from the House of Lancaster, a representative of the ever-restless and rebellious North defending national interests with his life. In The Hollow Crown, this Duke is even played by a black Briton, which despite the historical inaccuracy is a nod of the head to a modern, multiracial Britain (non-white men also appeared in the earlier Hollow Crown films).

But let’s not get bogged down in the supporting figures on the sidelines. The king runs this show, and Hiddleston’s Henry V assumes every role required of him and others besides. Every mask he dons suits him, and he moves from one aspect of idealized masculine kingship to another with the masterful command of one of Elizabethan stage’s star actors. He is as heroic in war as he is charmingly hesitant in the comical wooing of Catherine of Valois (Mélanie Thierry), promised to him as his future bride in the post-Azincourt negotiations with the beaten French King (Lambert Wilson). The common touch learned from his Eastcheap education from Falstaff and his circle does him credit, as he moves disguised among his men the night before the great battle to gain the measure of their morale; he even refrains from punishing one such soldier for an unrealized insult to the clandestine king.

But Henry is not afraid to get his hands dirty to consolidate his power, either. Although his exposure and execution of traitors at Southampton is left out of the early acts as an instructive object lesson in his newfound cold calculation, this king does forbid looting and wasteful foraging by his army in enemy lands (no wonder they were hungry and demoralized on the eve of battle; unpaid and scantily-supplied medieval armies relied on such activities to fill their purses and their bellies). When one of his old acquaintances in Falstaff’s circles, Bardolph (Tom Georgeson), is caught red-handed stealing from a church and good Harry sees him swinging from a tree branch, the king not without feeling but not moved to special treatment either. There are rules, firm lines of demarcation between the king and his subjects now, and though he will inspire and lead them, he is now inescapably above them, as it must be.

This vision of the role of the King of England is symbolized most clearly in The Hollow Crown‘s staging of Henry’s famed St. Crispin’s Day speech before the Battle of Agincourt. Compare it with two prominent previous film adaptations of the speech, Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film version and Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 take on the material. Olivier’s rich vocal performance rises and falls even as it tips into Received Pronunciation haughtiness, providing its own unique music (there is no score, only the voice of the king). Henry, in plain period dress (and with his ridiculous yet historically accurate haircut), walks among his troops, making occasional eye contact, speaking to all but also to each, predicting a collective memory of glory instead of a brutal, violent end. Olivier, also the director, shoots the whole speech in a single take and never once cuts to a close-up, as the camera approaches the speaker no nearer than a 3/4s view and mostly keeping the speechifying figure and the army pressing around him in medium range, with a subtle pullback as he finishes. Henry ends the speech standing on the bed of a humble cart that nonetheless elevates him above them like a campaign pedestal. The nationalist politics of the speech had to have been impossible to ignore in 1944, as Britain strove against Hitler’s war machine. When he closes with his final flourish to a mass cheer, the populism of the king’s appeal is undoubtable, but he remains above and apart.

Branagh’s pompous proclamatory tones, on the other hand, are more cornily theatrical and spittle-flecked. The visual composition is very much influenced by Olivier’s, and Branagh likewise sets himself as Henry among his men, this time arrayed over a small ridge, even employing a cart-as-platform in what must be a direct homage to the 20th Century’s great Shakespearean actor and filmmaker. But his speech contends with a stirring, memorable score from Patrick Doyle which emphasizes the mythic quality of the words. And Branagh’s vision is even more inclusive than Olivier’s. There’s much more cutting, from wider shots of the army around the king to his own impassioned face to the rapt visages of supporting characters listening with attentive admiration to this rhetorical tour-de-force from their leader (watch for a young Christian Bale as Boy). The climaxing cheer is much the same, but there is a note of togetherness, of the collapse of boundaries achieved by the shared sacrifice of war, that Olivier’s more class-conscious mounting of the material does not admit.

The Hollow Crown‘s St. Crispin’s Day speech sequence constitutes a radical break from these populist interpretations, though it also likely represents a more true-to-the-text staging. Hiddleston’s Henry V delivers the famous words not as a mass pep talk to thousands of foot soldiers but as a sincere but muted encouragement to his aristocratic captains. His speech begins with brave rhetoric in reply to the Duke of Westmoreland’s expressed wish for more troops, arguing that the determination of the men who remain to fight makes them preferable to an army twice the size. He asks Westmoreland to “proclaim it… through my host” that any man who cannot face up to the horrors of battle should say so and leave freely.

Taken as rhetorical framing by Olivier and Branagh, director Thea Sharrock views this line literally and her onscreen staging reflects that reading. Westmoreland must proclaim Henry’s words through his host because that host is not there listening to those words, only his generals are. “We happy few” are indeed quite few, not the scant hundreds aligned against France’s impressive thousands but barely a dozen representatives of the ruling elite (faithful to the Elizabethan stage, which would not have been able to contain the armed multitude). Henry speaks not in throat-scraping oratory but in a mild if passionate conservational tone. It’s an inspirational speech not for the 99% but for the 1%; not an amplified crowd-pleaser from the hustings but a composed parlay with the chaps down at the club. It’s a fair interpretation of the Shakespearean text, and fits with the approach of the rest of The Hollow Crown. In an epic tetralogy focused on the difficult role(s) that a king is expected to play, this scene and Henry V in general finds a solid conclusion: a king must rule, must impose his will upon his subjects from above them.

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  1. George
    January 17, 2015 at 6:25 am

    It’s not really history is it if you cast ethnic minorities in historical roles: it becomes fantasy.

    I’m uneasy about it because it’s clearly political. Multiculturalists hate history because it’s exclusive, not inclusive; so why not bastardise it for political effect.

    Not for me.

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