The Hollow Crown - Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1

A tv review article by: Kelvin Green, Paul Brian McCoy

Paul Brian McCoy: After last week's glorious launch of the BBC's The Hollow Crown with Richard II, this week we are plunged into the darker and more direct movement of Henry IV, Part One. This play covers the years 1402 and 1403 in King Henry's reign and things are not well in England.

Henry's trip to Jerusalem has been postponed due to an outbreak of rebellions and the play opens with news that Henry Percy has just won a decisive battle but refuses to turn over his prisoners to the king.

Kelvin Green: Dark is the right word for it. The contrast in visuals between this and last week's Richard II was striking.

Everything was cold and grey, and it set a wintry tone, befitting a kingdom in decline.

The only colour we really saw was the drab red Hal wore throughout.

Paul: True. There's not a lot of levity here, which is kind of odd for the play that introduced the world to Falstaff.

Kelvin: Indeed. He wasn't the riotous laugh one might expect from the character, as this was a very dark adaptation, but I wonder if that makes the character's relative levity all the more effective.

He's surrounded by all the blood, mud and shit, and so that creates a contrast.

I'm not sure if it worked like that, but that may have been what they were going for.

Paul: Perhaps. I'm pretty sure that was the intent, anyway. It didn't really work that well for me.

Especially after seeing some clips of the stage performance in the Shakespeare Uncovered episode that aired that same night. On stage the comedy is played up and in just a few short clips, I was laughing out loud. Here, not so much.

Kelvin: I thought it worked well enough in the context of the TV movie, but there are some expectations of Falstaff and yes, this portrayal ran counter to them in places.

Paul: There also seemed to be more pronounced hostility behind the interactions of Prince Hal and Falstaff here than I was expecting.

Kelvin: Yes, I noticed that too. More emphasis was placed on Hal's attempts to belittle and embarrass Falstaff, and Falstaff showed definite contempt for the prince on occasion.

It's there in the text, I suppose, but it's not a common interpretation.

Paul: Yes. As we talked about a bit last week, the text really does leave things up to the interpretation of the actors and the director. After seeing Tom Hiddleston talk a little about how he saw Hal, I'm wondering if his interpretation and the director's weren't working at cross purposes.

For example, Hiddleston said he didn't think Hal had his eventual betrayal of Falstaff planned and that he really was affectionate toward the fat man, but Richard Eyre's direction really emphasizes Hal's Machiavellian intents from the start and dwells on the negative aspects of their relationship.

Kelvin: Ah, now I didn't see the supplementary material, so that's interesting.

I think the scene with the two of them pretending to be father and son was supposed to show that underneath it all they do have affection for each other, but I don't know how successful it was.

Paul: Exactly!

That's a turning point scene, where Hal realizes that he's going to have to leave Falstaff behind, but it relied too much on the weepy music to make that point instead of letting the performances to the heavy lifting.

Kelvin: Yes. I'm a little torn on this film, because I think a lot of what they did with the little moments of truth and light and warmth struggling to the surface of all the misery was deliberate, but I wonder if they went a bit too far with the stifling grimness of it all.

And in doing so, undermined what they were trying to do.

Paul: This is a difficult film to review, you're right. I don't want my complaining to make it seem as though I didn't like the production. I actually really enjoyed it. It just wasn't what I was expecting, being at least a little more familiar with the play than I was with Richard II.

The performances are all superb, although I did think Hiddleston was a little stiff here and there. But that was mostly at the transitions between playing Hal the Prince and Hal the Blaggard.

Kelvin: I thought he was excellent, except in the moment when he decides to be the Prince; that was so unconvincing, I was waiting for an inserted line of dialogue to explain his change of heart.

It seemed like a scene had been cut somewhere.

Paul: I don't know. I think he relied a little too much on looking stern and then breaking out into that big smile to carry the transition in too many scenes.

Kelvin: It is an infectious smile!

Paul: I just kept seeing Loki.

Kelvin: That smile is forever associated with Loki in my mind now, too.

I was also impressed by his Jeremy Irons impression in the mock father and son scene. At first I thought they were doing some kind of trickery with a recording.

Paul: Oh yeah! That was a very good bit. It may be the best bit of work Hiddleston did in the whole play. It really felt natural; like he was having fun.

Kelvin: Yes, I appreciated that bit because they didn't have to go to the lengths of an impersonation; it was a little bit of extra, as you say, fun for the viewers.

Paul: Falstaff's overly poncy take on Hal was pretty entertaining there too.

Kelvin: Yes, he emphasised the "pretty boy" aspect of the character well there.

It was good, and was perhaps the only part where I was frustrated that they didn't do more with the comedic aspects of the play.

Because it was so good in that one scene.

Paul: Agreed.

Simon Russell Beale's Falstaff was excellent, if more restrained than normal interpretations. I would have loved to see him cut loose a little more. However, his serious ruminations on honor the night before the final battle of the play was fantastic.

Kelvin: Yes, he was very good, and in a difficult role, given the way they decided to play Falstaff.

I was reminded a lot of Robbie Coltrane, who played the character in Kenneth Branagh's Henry V.

Paul: Yes!

Kelvin: Which is not to take away from Beale's portrayal.

Paul: No!

I just realized that we've talked for quite a while now and neither of us have really mentioned Jeremy Irons or King Henry. For a play that is ostensibly about the man, he doesn't play that large a part of the production.

Kelvin: Indeed. I really like Jeremy Irons, but we didn't get to see him do much.

I mean, he was good enough, but I can't say I came away thinking "what a great performance by Jeremy Irons!"

Although he did carry the weariness of Henry very well.

Paul: He certainly did. I would have thought this play took place nearly twenty years after Richard II, not three.

Kelvin: Yes!

Again, it's one of those things that may have been deliberate. If you're trying to show a kingdom in decline, one way to do that is to show the figurehead as himself declining, perhaps by pushing him into the background. That said, you're still pushing one of the main characters into the background, so perhaps that's not the best approach.

Maybe I'm reading too much intent into the adaptation.

Paul: I was reading online about the play, and it turns out that originally the main focus was always on Henry IV and Falstaff. It was during the Twentieth Century that the arc that Prince Hal is on has become dominant in productions.

Kelvin: Yes, I read that too. It seems pertinent given our discussion both this week and last about how the plays can change depending on how little bits and pieces are tweaked.

Paul: Especially given your conspiracy theory of last week, too. Putting the focus on the legacy, rather than the decline in the build-up to the Olympics.

I really can't wait to see how they end Henry V.

Kelvin: Yes indeed. That's all about cheering on England, so one would expect it to be a celebratory finale, but you never know. Neither of the two films so far has gone as I expected.

Although to be fair, I knew very little about Richard II going in, so anything would have confounded my expectations.

Paul: There's a short epilogue to Henry V, where the Chorus comes out, thanks the audience, and mentions that Henry died young and his son lost everything he had gained. I don't know how that will play.

Kelvin: Yes indeed. They might cut it if it doesn't fit the arc they're going for, if indeed they're going for an arc!

What did you think of Joe Armstrong's Hotspur?

Paul: I was about to ask you the same thing! Again, I liked the performance. He was pretty much everything Hotspur is supposed to be. I also appreciated the fact that they cast his father, Alun Armstrong, as his father in the play.

Kelvin: Yes, I thought he did an excellent job. Both he and Hiddleston were positioned as these vibrant and energetic points of light amongst all the entropy, but I think Armstrong pulled it off a tad better than Loki did.

Paul: Yes, he did. I swear I've seen him in other things, but I can't find a single thing on his resume that I've seen. It's strange.

Kelvin: He was in the BBC's Robin Hood, alongside Harry Lloyd, who played Mortimer in this.

Paul: Yeah, but I've not watched any of that.

Anyway, it was a solid performance, and from what I understand, he did the accent properly, too (Thanks, Phil K.!).

Kelvin: Also, he looks very much like his dad, so you may be thinking of him!

Paul: That very well could be it. Especially as I didn't recognize his dad in this!

Kelvin: Look at Alun in The Duellists or the mighty Krull, and it could easily be Joe.

Paul: Oh shit! Those might be just the thing I was thinking about!

Kelvin: Well, everyone should watch both The Duellists and Krull, because they're ace.

Paul: Agreed.

So, do we want to talk about the whole Father/Son relationship theme in this, or was it all just too obvious to really mention?

Kelvin: It's worth a mention, at least. It's a key part of the play, after all.

Paul: And we should try to be professional and all that, I suppose.

Kelvin: I see no contradiction between professionalism and plugging Krull.

Paul: Oh no. No indeed. But plugging Krull and not mentioning the blatant point Shakespeare was making by opening the play with King Henry wishing Hotspur was his real son instead of the horrible disappointment that Hal was, and ending with the two young Henrys meeting on the field of battle with only one coming out alive, might be seen as missing something.

Kelvin: Yes, and also the surrogate father figure -- however deficient -- that Falstaff provides for Hal.

Paul: Yurp. It's all so bloody obvious, though. And a little boring. I wish it hadn't been thrust so front and center and instead they'd played more with the characters' motivations.

Kelvin: It is a bit obvious, yes, so much so that it didn't need the extra emphasis they put on it in this film, I agree.

And speaking of surrogates, the weird way Hotspur becomes fixated on his in-laws.

Paul: That was odd, I admit.

Also, given how close this play was chronologically with Richard II, I have to again second your wish from last week that each of these productions shared the same cast.

Kelvin: Yes, it seems like such a missed opportunity.

In particular, given how often this play refers to the events of the other, and to be shown a week after.

Paul: Did we see Hotspur in Richard II? I don't remember, but here he is always included with the others who welcomed Bolingbroke back into England from exile.

Kelvin: I don't believe we do see him.

Paul: I don't think so either.

Oh well. Can't have everything, I guess.

As it is, this is still a very impressive production. It was an interesting choice to play up the realism and lose the more boisterous comedy elements, but overall I think it accomplished what the director set out to do.

We'll have to see how next week's Part Two plays out to really judge, though, I'd think.

Kelvin: Yes indeed. I think that the film is in many ways quite brave in how it backs expectations of how the play should be performed. I don't think it was always successful, and it wasn't anywhere as impressive as Richard II was, but it had its own strengths; I very much appreciated the wintry tone of the whole thing, for example.

Paul: I know a lot of critics are calling this a high-point for television adaptations of Shakespeare, and while I agree it was a solid production, I don't know how it will hold up over time. The look and feel were excellent, as you say, but some of the lifeblood of the play seemed missing.

Kelvin: I suspect it's simply that it's been so long since we had any good TV adaptations that the critics are starved.

Paul: Ha!

Kelvin: The Macbeth from a couple of years ago was superb, the Richard II from last week was great, but this was just good.

Paul: Exactly. It was just good.

I can't decide whether to go with 3.5 stars or 4.

My gut says 3.5, but it was a beautiful production.

Kelvin: I'm going to go for , because I think the risks the creators made undermined the whole, in my opinion, no matter how much I liked the look of it.

Paul: I think you're right. it is.

I'm not nearly as familiar with Part Two as with Part One (which isn't saying much, really), so I'm very curious to see how this moves into the second half of Henry's reign.

Kelvin: Yes, there were clear indications that they see them as one long film, so I'm interested in how things progress.

Kelvin Green erupted fully formed from the grey shapeless mass of Ubbo Sathla in the dark days before humans walked the earth. He grew up on Judge Dredd, Transformers, Indiana Jones #12, the Avengers and Spider-Man, and thinks comics don't get much better than FLCL, Nextwave and Rocket Raccoon. Kelvin lives among garbage and seagulls and doesn't hate Marvel nearly as much as you all think he does.

Kelvin is also writing and illustrating the Lamentations of the Flame Princess RPG, Horror Among Thieves. You can contribute to the project, along with other LoTP games at indiegogo!

Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot, Streaming Pile O' Wha?, and Classic Film/New Blu, all here at Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is on sale now for Kindle US, Kindle UK, and Nook. You can also purchase his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation at Amazon US and UK. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.

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