Friday, 7 September 2012

Stage-to-screen review: Henry V (BBC Hollow Crown)

The BBC's Hollow Crown series of Histories comes to an end with Henry V, the final play in Shakespeare's quartet. Although I somehow think even if it had been a collection of Shakespeare's romantic comedies it would have somehow managed to end with Henry V - it's been a Henry V kind of year, and even having skipped a couple of productions I could have seen, this is the fourth interpretation I've seen in 2012 so far. Fortunately, each version has had a fairly different take on the story. Tom Hiddleston's Prince Hal is now King Henry V, and on the surface of things he's left his reckless days behind him. But the defining event of his reign betrays that wild side - a bloody campaign against France, based on a spurious historical claim to the French throne. Meanwhile we see how some of Hal's former Eastcheap drinking buddies are getting along since he renounced their company.

Thea Sharrock takes on directing duties for the final installment, and she's very much gone for a "boys' own story" take on the play, which after a credit sequence that predicts the hero's early death, jumps straight into action. This version of the story is a bloody and triumphant war movie that doesn't delve too deeply into Henry's dark side, except in a couple of sometimes odd ways. And having now followed his portrayal through three consecutive films, I'm not sure Hiddleston is the best Hal they could have found for the job - he never quite convinced me either as rowdy Hal or severe Harry.

One inevitable consequence of having seen the play three times in as many months is that I'm unusually aware of the changes Ben Power, who once again tackles the screenplay, has made. A few characters who usually die are spared here; while on the flipside Paterson Joseph's Duke of York gets an onscreen death instead of it being merely reported. Owen Teale's Fluellen is the sole survivor of the representatives of the four corners of the UK; which means he gets to rock an enormous beard, but not force-feed anyone a leek. A notable early omission is the discovery of the rebellious lords, which takes away an initial sign of the king's ruthlessness. Later, the killing of the boys is cut out, presumably to enable Sharrock's final twist where Falstaff's Boy (George Sergeant) grows up to become the play's Chorus (John Hurt, who's been narrating in voiceover all along.) But the following scene, of Henry ordering the killing of the French prisoners, remains. Which means Henry is now the first to break the rules of war, and appears to be doing it merely because he's annoyed that the French are regrouping. It all leaves a bit of a muddle as to what moral stance on Henry's actions the film is taking.

The film is stronger in the B-story of the Boar's Head regulars, now led by Paul Ritter's Pistol, as they join a war led by the former friend who's disowned them. Julie Walters returns as Mistress Quickly to give a moving account of Falstaff's death, and there's a great addition in Tom Brooke giving Nym a lot of personality as only he can. Gwilym Lee as Williams contributes to a nicely-realised scene of the regular soldier accidentally challenging his king to a duel but standing up for himself when he discovers the truth. Jeremie Covillaut also brings a nice quiet dignity to Montjoy. And this being Thea Sharrock's installment, it's no big surprise to see regular collaborator Richard Griffiths turn up, albeit in the none-too-thrilling role of Burgundy. With Sharrock having directed one of my favourite As You Like Its I was hoping she might be able to get over The Hollow Crown's dodgy track record on comedy scenes but it wasn't to be - Melanie Thierry and Geraldine Chaplin underplay the English lesson to the point where it too might as well have been cut.

With so many recent examples to compare it to it's probably inevitable I would find this Henry V a bit underwhelming, with the choice of scenes to cut a bit hit and miss. It's entertaining enough but not particularly deep and could have done with a more charismatic lead - I'm not sure this is a Henry people would follow quite that enthusiastically into battle.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.

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