It remains to Thea Sharrock to steer the BBC’s Hollow Crown series to a dignified and lavish conclusion with Henry V, which brings Tom Hiddleston’s young king to worldly maturity and sees the return of most of the actors whose parts have transcended individual films (although not York/Aumerle nor, curiously, Falstaff’s Boy). As was the case with Richard Eyre’s Henry IV films, this production is defined by its sincerity and seriousness, unfortunately to a fault. In its depiction of war, Sharrock steers away from politics and consequence to offer a more superficial overview of the war experience that concentrates in micro-close-up indiscriminately on the suffering of all individuals, taking the easy route of demonstrating that War Is Bad through the earnestly agonised faces and pathos-laden deaths of name characters, rather than critiquing the processes that created the situation in the first place.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a great deal to like about this film, particularly in the performances. Anton Lesser is a weary, quiet Exeter, rivetting in his tired glare at Jeremie Covillaut’s Montjoy and a calm presence who stalks the edges of the battlefield and the king’s chambers alike. Owen Teale is a serious-minded Fluellen, brusque but fair, and with a propensity to help his struggling underlings. Melanie Thierry and Geraldine Chaplin allow their dignity to dissolve into giggling during the French-speaking scene, and Lambert Wilson offers an austere reading of the King of France, framed by a huge faded tapestry (which the pedant in me thinks would probaby have been much more brightly coloured at the time, but I digress).
In this version of history, everyone is a human being and everyone is individually characterised. This means that we see on every face the pain of war, the slog and tiredness experienced whether by kings or the lowest footsoldier. It becomes somewhat relentless; Paul Ritter’s Pistol sobs into his hands at the side of the battlefield, pulled up short by the carnage he sees; Fluellen dismounts from his horse to help a stumbling soldier through the mud while another soldier struggles to hold up a tattered St. George’s flag; and the French nobles cradle their dying partners while promising to report back to the King. Most notably, Paterson Joseph’s York is foregrounded early on as a particularly close friend of Henry V, picked out for special attention during the “band of brothers” speech and seen helping rescue the beleagured king on the battlefield in slow motion. His death occurs as he comes to the aid of the Boy, shot unawares by a French soldier who is subsequently shot by Exeter’s man. York dies in the arms of the sobbing boy in a moment emblematic of the production’s overall intentions – to emphasise war as the individual experience of tragedy.
This is entirely valid as a reading but, as with Henry IV Part 2, it becomes rather monotonous, a montage of individual moments of sadness that don’t coalesce in a coherent way. It looks and sounds stunning, but it doesn’t offer much beyond the presentation of the material in a fairly superficial way. That is perhaps most true of the Chorus. John Hurt offers a clear, erudite reading of the speeches, but as a voiceover while scenes – the funeral of Henry V that opens the film, the sight of a majestic English ship crossing the channel – are fully visualised. Surely the purpose of the Chorus, however, is to evoke what cannot be realised, to articulate the performativity of the actors, rather than to act as the narration to literal depictions of events. The film’s priorities are to emphasise grand speeches and the pain of war rather than engage with the play’s more complex issues.
This is made apparent in the choice of cuts and interpretations. The opening involvement of the bishops in inciting Henry to war is cut to reduce their agency, and Henry’s rationale for attacking France is accepted as just. The sequence of the traitors is entirely excised, preserving the English army as unfactionalised; a decision aided by the removal of the scene of the four captains. With the exception of Montjoy, the French get very little screen time other than what is necessary to establish them as opponents and imply the selfish motivations that allow Henry to make tough decisions. Most bizarrely, however, the killing of the boys is omitted, and Henry’s decision to have the French prisoners killed comes as an outburst following the report of York’s death.
Similarly, humour is mitigated at every turn. Any mention of leeks is studiously avoided, Falstaff’s death is illustrated with a brief picture of a fading Simon Russell Beale, and the touching scene that remains between Julie Walters’ Mistress Quickly and the other Eastcheap survivors is full of tears and serious recrimination, as well as a few laughs through tears. Bardolph’s final situation is, however, played out at full length – York catches him running away with a crucifix, and Henry is brought to the tree where Bardolph has already been hanged, only to be greeted with a series of misty flashbacks of their prior connections. The fact that he is already dead, of course, relieves Henry of individual responsibility for his death, and thus Bardolph becomes simply another burden for the troubled king to bear.
Yet there is a great deal to love here. The battle scenes are extremely well done on the relatively small budget, drawing on Gladiator (a counterattack led from the trees by Fluellen), Braveheart (the massing soldiers) and Lord of the Rings (the storming of Harfleur smacks of Helm’s Deep). The extreme cuts to the text allow the battles to contain their own miniature storylines and characteristics, from the boiling water poured on the English at Harfleur to the repeated digging-in and raising of defences at Agincourt. Sharrock’s direction and emphasis on individual experience means that we see these battles through individual eyes, and Hiddleston is absolutely the right Henry for this approach. The two set-piece speeches are delivered naturally to small groups rather than as rhetorical announcements to an entire army. For “Once more unto the breach”, he finds individual yeomen, including one cowering in panic next to the walls, and whispers his lines quietly to him, drawing the terrified soldier out of his foetal position with soothing blue eyes and calm words. “Band of brothers”, meanwhile, takes the situation of the text literally and sees Henry speak as an individual to the small group of nobles (York, Westmorland, Erpingham, Exeter etc.) who are already in conversation, rather than opening up his promises to address the crowds. It’s a distinctive and unusual arrangement of the speeches which works well in this context.
Hiddleston is a fine Henry V, troubled throughout by the pain of his soldiers and keen to engage with them. He’s exemplary of the caring monarch, murmuring under his hood about how well Pistol’s name suits him as the aggrieved soldier stomps away, and bursting into fury at Montjoy’s last appearance. He is pious, spending considerable time on his knees either side of the battle, and charming in his encounter with Katherine. It’s a solid, conventional reading of the king, but the camera allows Hiddleston to make the most of his facial expressions, emphasising the emotional reach in a way made more difficult on stage.
In an interesting final gambit, we see the face of the Boy who survived this version of the story come to Henry V’s funeral and then, in a jump cut, transform into John Hurt, who wanders around an empty throne room clutching a tattered piece of an English flag. Interestingly, part of the penultimate line, “which oft our stage hath shown” is cut, presumably in honest reference to the fact that the BBC has not repeatedly shown the Henry VI trilogy. Yet the ethos of the series is disrupted in a final direct-to-camera address, asking the audience to accept the telling; followed by a historical message explaining that Henry died of dysentry. The shift to an odd docu-drama approach in the last moments fits oddly; it is the first time the audience is asked to accept a real king rather than a performed one. It’s a moment which, again, sacrifices tonal consistency in favour of the quick emotional connection, the grown-up Boy gazing at the camera and asking the audience to remember them.
The Hollow Crown has created four accessible, straightforward Shakespeare films that are conservative in their readings, rich in production value and push the history plays as mood pieces, with individual emotion wrung out of every character. They will be hugely useful as teaching resources, and they are eminently watchable television. I wish the BBC had had the guts to do something more interesting with them though; make use of the format (Rupert Goold was the most inventive in this respect, but this was far more restrained technically than, say, his Macbeth) or take the opportunity to challenge the narratives of nationalism and conflict that were raised but not addressed in this series. The films are beautiful, but smack to me of Shakespeare to be seen and appreciated rather than to be engaged with or provoke conversation. While they are in many ways a resounding success, creating a Shakespeare that will reach the broadest possible audience and latch onto public mood broadly celebratory of individual achievement and ideas of the home nation in an Olympic year, it’s perhaps also a missed opportunity for the exact same reasons.