Monday, 13 August 2012

Stage-to-screen review: Henry IV Part 2 (BBC Hollow Crown)

"Previously on Henry IV" - heh, I did quite enjoy the fact that Richard Eyre took the opportunity to do a classic TV recap at the top of his Hollow Crown film of Henry IV Part 2. Handy way to get the credits out of the way without putting them over the action, too. Although both are highly regarded, the second of Shakespeare's Henry IV plays seems to be considered marginally the lesser of the two, and if the production's not good enough it can sometimes come across as a poor retread of Part 1. Done well though it can shine in its own right (it does contain a lot of the sequence's iconic scenes and lines) and in my opinion this is the better of the two BBC adaptations. With Henry IV (Jeremy Irons) ailing, a second rebellion threatens to rise up out of Hotspur's failed attempt - but this one will be dealt with a lot more strategically and with less bloodshed. Hal (Tom Hiddleston) knows the time is approaching for him to take over as king, and starts to plan how he'll get rid of his group of hangers-on, led by Falstaff.

Thanks partly to the text editing, Simon Russell Beale's Falstaff wasn't as overwhelming a figure over Part 1 as the character tends to be on stage. Although this play has also been edited down to under two hours, it feels as if a lot more Falstaff has been left in, as he continues to take advantage of his position while looking forward to an imagined power when his friend reigns. There's a delicate balancing act to be done here between retaining some sympathy for the fat old man and exposing the fact that he's not just a cowardly old duffer but quite genuinely cruel, manipulative and selfish. We see his attempt to grass up Poins (David Dawson) about a (possibly fabricated) claim to the kind of influence on Hal that Falstaff himself constantly brags of; Falstaff gets his comeuppance for this but it does seem to influence Hal regardless - as Henry V he does, after all, say he's banished all "the rest of my misleaders" and Poins doesn't appear in the next play. SRB and Hiddleston only have two scenes together in this play, and they're both, in different ways, antagonistic, so the lack of chemistry between them that disappointed me in the first part isn't as big a problem here; the film essentially charts the two characters' separate stories until they meet again for the iconic final time.

The fact that this play is darker overall may be another reason I preferred this adaptation, the fact remains that the comedy which is such a big element of Part 1 just isn't The Hollow Crown's strongest suit, and despite a nice turn from David Bamber as Shallow that does elicit a few smiles the comic scenes here are underwhelming on the whole as well. But they've never felt for me as important to the play overall in Part 2, and instead the adaptation is able to build up a somewhat menacing atmosphere as we lead up to another handover of the crown. And the remaining sympathy for Falstaff, Julie Walters' Mistress Quickly, Maxine Peake's Doll Tearsheet and the rest is useful when the prince they thought was their friend turns into the king who sets the guards on them. It leaves a question mark over just how ruthless and amoral the new monarch is willing to be, which is particularly important if, as here, you're going to follow the story straight on to some of the questionable things he'll do in Henry V.

Once again I thought the chemistry Hiddleston lacked with SRB was present with Jeremy Irons as his real father, and the bedside scene of Hal assuming the crown too early then eventually reconciling with Henry IV before his death is one of the more powerfully done in the series so far. Eyre takes advantage of the different medium to actually have us follow Hal all the way to the throne room to try on the crown and its responsibilities, which is a nice touch. And as ever, the fact that the BBC were able to pretty much have their pick of acting talent for roles big and small pays dividends - Dominic Rowan's hangdog face is perfect for Coleville as he's caught by Falstaff of all people; Paul Ritter is a manic Pistol, Geoffrey Palmer a good choice to bring sympathy to the strict-but-fair Lord Chief Justice, there's even a very quick Reece Shearsmith cameo. Perhaps not sparkling, and in its first part not quite hitting the mark, but by its second part Eyre's Henry IV ends up a satisfying take on the plays.

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes.

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