Paul Brian McCoy: Last week, the BBC aired the final episode of their series of Shakespearean adaptations, The Hollow Crown. This time out, we followed the former Prince Hal (Tom Hiddleston) as the recently crowned Henry V.
I'll just say right from the start that this was quite the step up from last week's Henry IV, Part Two.
Kelvin Green: I agree. It was a return to form for the series.
And interesting in that it shared cast and sets with Henry IV, but seemed quite different.
That's the touch of the director and screenwriter, I suppose.
Paul: Yes. Director Thea Sharrock didn't try to reinvent the wheel here. She took what is arguably one of Shakespeare's most popular plays (History Plays, anyway) and just had at it.
At the same time, she brought a very interesting take to a number of key scenes that, while they didn't really change the face of the play, focused the attention on Henry's personal approach to leading in the field.
If that makes any sense.
Kelvin: It does.
Paul: I don't think I've seen a production of Henry V that didn't present both the "Once more through the breach dear friends" and the "St. Crispin's Day" speeches before masses of soldiers.
Kelvin: Yes. I liked the change to "breach", but I have to say that I was disappointed in the "Crispin's Day" speech.
It almost seemed as if, knowing how iconic a scene it is, they dialed back on it, put too much emphasis on understatement, as contradictory as that seems.
I also thought it more effective a speech if given to the massed ranks rather than to — as we saw here — to a handful of generals and nobles. It undermined the sense of — as you say — Henry's common touch.
Paul: I can see that.
I liked the way it juxtaposed the attitudes of the common soldiers with the nobles, though, with the way the scene plays out just after the night before, where Henry (in disguise) almost gets into a brawl with soldiers who doubt the king's integrity.
I liked the way it addressed anxieties from everyone following Henry into battle.
But you're quite right. The rousing speech to the troops is much more emotionally satisfying.
Kelvin: I can't help but compare it to Branagh's version and find it lacking.
Kelvin: That's a shame, as the rest of the film was quite strong, I thought, and Hiddleston turned out to be a good Henry V after our fears in previous weeks.
Paul: He did. Again, I think that is thanks to the director's approach here. Henry V is all about being The King and there's no more dilly-dallying about.
Paul: He really sold the whole, "We're gonna rape your women and put your babies on pikes" speech. That was intense.
Kelvin: It was. He captured all those sides of Henry: the noble and fair general, the vengeful warrior, and even the clumsy romantic towards the end. He was always convincing.
Paul: He lost me a little with the wooing. He seemed a little too predatory at times – back to the playacting – although perhaps that was intentional.
Kelvin: It's a difficult scene because it comes a bit out of nowhere in the original text; I've always found Henry's sudden interest in Katherine jarring, but not here.
Paul: I didn't see much chemistry between the two. This was the scene that really had me thinking back to Branagh's version.
Kelvin: Well, there would be chemistry if one casts one's wife!
Paul: Whatever works.
Paul: I think my favorite directorial choices were the opening and closing scenes. And, of course, hiring John Hurt for the Chorus.
Kelvin: Yeah, that was inspired casting. I was surprised by the prologue and epilogue; it was an interesting choice to bookend such a traditionally celebratory play with scenes of a dead Henry.
Paul: It forces the viewer to look at Henry's story with an eye to history, rather than as just the usual focus of national pride.
Kelvin: That's a good point, and it makes the film's part in the Olympic run up all the more interesting. We were expecting it to be more YAY ENGLAND! than it turned out to be.
Paul: Right. I was wholly expecting the final speech to be cut or at least de-emphasized. But this is the exact opposite of that.
Kelvin: Yes, by illustrating the Chorus' words with the visual of a dead Henry, it put a lot more weight behind the words. I have some problems with the way the Chorus was done in the film, but this was one place where it worked well.
Perhaps because it was unexpected.
Paul: I'm sure Aiden Burley thought it was a bit too leftie.
Well, I didn't vote for him!
Paul: Neither did I!
Wait, um. yeah.
Anyway, what problems did you have with the Chorus?
Kelvin: I felt that too often they showed what the Chorus was talking about, and it seemed a bit of an unimaginative approach.
Surely they can do more than simply illustrate his words?
As I say, it worked well in the final scene, but otherwise it seemed a bit weak.
I'm not sure I've explained that well.
Paul: You have, and that's a valid point. It's something Branagh sidestepped a bit with his more theatrical approach to the Chorus.
Suggesting visually that the Chorus was actually a character who lived through the events of the play was a bit of a stretch in that final scene. I don't know if that was meant to be literal or just a visual nod, but it didn't really work for me.
Kelvin: "Literal"; that's exactly it. The use of imagery during the Chorus' lines was far too literal.
So I'd imagine the Chorus' presence was also intended to be literal.
Paul: I suppose that all comes back to what I said earlier about this being a very straight-forward adaptation of Henry V. A lot has been said and written about Olivier's stylized rallying cry in 1944 and Branagh's emphasis on the horrors of war in 1989. Do you think there was a main thematic approach here?
Nothing jumps out at me, which suggests that either I'm an idiot, or they didn't present a strong theme.
There's Henry's common touch and fairness, but those are in the text.
Paul: No, no. I'm asking because I didn't really see much more there than the text, either. I was thinking maybe I'd missed something.
Kelvin: It struck me as understated in general, and I wonder if that was deliberate — although I can't think why — and if so, perhaps that detracted from any theme.
Perhaps it was buried.
Paul: I don't know.
But I can honestly say that a week later, the film hasn't really lingered with me. It was a solid production, no question, but I think in the end, there just wasn't a lot to make it stand out.
Kelvin: Perhaps the theme was understatement. When Olivier and Branagh have both done such iconic and memorable versions of the play, perhaps taking a step back and being more muted was deliberate. If so, I don't think it worked.
As you say, I struggle to remember many of the details of this Henry V, but Richard II from a few weeks back is still vivid.
I'm afraid this production is kind of cursed as one of those, "Oh Yes, Shakespeare, Right?" kind of productions. The only real risks taken were in suggesting the viewers see Henry historically rather than simply heroically. That doesn't do the play any favors.
Kelvin: You're quite right. I'm sure there is another brilliant and memorable Henry V out there, but this isn't it.
Paul: I was impressed, however, with the death of Falstaff scene. I thought that was very nicely done. Some real emotion seemed to slip in there. Even if I did keep expecting Pistol to take off his shirt and ask them to repeat everything.
Yes, I forgot to mention Pistol last week, but it was nice to see Paul Ritter.
Yes, I thought they handled Falstaff's death well. I was also impressed with Owen Teale as an almost feral Fluelin. With his wild hair and wilder eyes, he reminded me of Christopher Walken in Sleepy Hollow.
Paul: Teale was another stand out, I agree. I didn't really recognize him at all.
But I think I only know him from Game of Thrones.
Kelvin: I think almost all of the Game of Thrones cast have been rotated through these plays at some point.
I was also pleased to see our old friend from The Hour Anton Lesser get a big role as Exeter. Jérémie Covillault was also good as the French ambassador, I thought.
Paul: Holy crap! I didn't recognize Lesser either!
Kelvin: He had much more hair in this than when we saw him last. And I see that he's going to be in Game of Thrones next year!
Paul: His verbal takedown of the Dauphin was gold.
Kelvin: It was. For such a gentle-seeming fellow, he's got steel, as we saw in The Hour.
Paul: Is there anything we've missed?
Kelvin: I don't think so.
It says something about this adaptation that we've run out of things to say already.
A solid production, some very good performances, but for all that, somehow forgettable.
Paul: That about sums it up.
Sentimentality says give it 4, but I'm leaning more toward .
Kelvin: I'm thinking the same. Henry V, the play, is so good that I want to give it a 4, but I don't think Henry V, the film, was quite that good. is fair.
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.