Alan Morrison on

The Hollow Crown
Part Two: Henry IV Part 1
Part Three: Henry IV Part 2
Directed by Richard Eyre, BBC2

A Dance To The Chimes At Midnight

As predicted at the end of my enthusiastic review of The Hollow Crown: Richard II, a refreshingly poetic and theatrical historical Shakespearean adaptation, Richard Goold’s imaginative and painterly direction proved a high precedent for Richard Eyre to match in his follow up instalment, Henry IV Part 1, which was in the main a far less satisfying return to the more peripatetic and fast-cutting camera style of most contemporary costume drama. Allied to this short-attention-span-tailored jerky camerawork, wholly inappropriate to the language-focused drama of Shakespeare, were those other two contemporary TV/Film stylistic irritants: mumbled speech delivery – again, hardly the best method to convey the deeply poetic, metaphorically complex language of Shakespeare – and a jarringly melodramatic and mood-imposing musical score, often drowning out much of the dialogue. All these modern pretensions which so frequently dog otherwise visually striking historical dramas on television and film were expertly avoided in Richard Goold’s exceptionally well-paced, atmospheric and literarily centred adaptation of Richard II – and on the basis of Henry IV Part 1, one might have been led to suddenly ask, bar its first gripping instalment, is The Hollow Crown to be another type of ‘hollow’ to that which it’s figurative title is supposed to suggest?

The performances in Henry IV Part 1 generally paled in comparison to the intensity of Whishaw’s Richard Plantagenet, or Kinnear’s quietly simmering Bollingbroke: suddenly we were plunged into the sharp tonal shift of revelling, roistering and larks in a rakish tavern scenario, full of bull and bluster and yet frequently inaudible soliloquies by Prince Hal’s sparring partner, the obese Falstaff, apparently being hysterically amusing throughout as signposted by the largely affected laughter of his coterie, Julie Walters’ Mistress Quickly among them – all seemingly desperate to ‘act’ their hysteria as Simon Russell Beale’s rubicund wastrel strutted his stuff. Beale is apparently regarded by some as the greatest stage thesp of his generation; and no doubt there are good reasons for such; on television he is still probably most memorable for his portrayal of the oddly enigmatic social misfit Widmerpool from 1997’s stylistically heavy-handed TV adaptation of Anthony Powell’s A Dance To The Music of Time. Buried in beard and prosthetic red nose, Beale has had to do most of his Falstaff routine with his roving eyes alone, which has had the unfortunate effect of reminding one of John Rhys-Davies’ wholly ocular comical portrayal the dwarf Gimli in Peter Jackson’s visually stunning but directorially over-sentimentalised Lord of the Rings film trilogy, than anything resembling Orson Wells’ sublime Falstaff of Chimes At Midnight (1965). Nevertheless, Beale is reasonably convincing throughout, even if the theatrical ‘cult’ of his comical character as crafted by Shakespeare seems to be put across in this adaptation as if most viewers are well-initiated into it already – the atmosphere and mannerly – or rather, unmannerly – high jinks and capers of the whole crew coming across as achingly actorly in comparison to the previous weeks’ more understated and authentic-feeling instalment. John Hiddleston is an interestingly unobvious type of Prince Hal, rather fey and acts his part satisfactorily, but seems restricted in dramatic scope by what feels to this writer more of a ‘light entertainment’ intermission between the intriguing grimness of Richard II and the sourer mood of Henry IV Part 2. In short, this writer is simply not much of a fan of Henry IV Part 1 (nor particularly of Part 2 either, nor of Henry V – the deeper polemic on the nature of monarchy as exemplified in Richard II, Henry VI 1,2 and 3 and Richard III, to his mind, make for far more arresting dramas).

As if almost echoing the bizarre casting decisions of the aforementioned 1997 serial A Dance To The Music of Time, in which the main character was inexplicably re-cast in the later episodes by a much older actor who bore no obvious resemblance to the younger version, even though the rest of the cast were artificially ‘aged’ with make up and silver hair dyes: from Rory Kinnear’s slightly portly Bollingbroke we jump to his aged self as Henry IV who has suddenly grown a couple of inches into a thinner and more sculpted Jeremy Irons, replete with completely different colouring and voice. Presumably owing to the different directors of each instalment, the casting directors also changed – but nevertheless, this is a big jump in suspension of disbelief for the viewer since there is simply absolutely no physical or vocal resemblance between the two actors. Anyhow, it is Irons subdued and moody performance and the growingly haunted – by his usurpation of the ‘hollow’ crown – Henry IV which singularly made Henry IV Part 1 worth sticking with. In this writer’s case, however, it was in-between intermittent catnaps, a soporific effect which Richard II did not have on him at all. He was occasionally woken by Jo Armstrong’s very shouty Hotspur ranting and raving all over the place, but felt otherwise unmoved by his portrayal, energetic though it was. Most unimportantly for a Shakespeare adaptation, it was the stunningly realised winter battle scenes at the end of the play which captured my attention more than anything, beautifully choreographed, ending in a genuinely authentic-seeming duel between Hal and Hotspur. But that was not enough to lift Henry IV Part 1 above the average, paling in comparison to its brilliant precursor.

Happily, Henry IV Part 2 was a definite improvement, perhaps because it is a far moodier piece than Part 1, a sense of winter truly set into the tone of proceedings, with Irons bringing even more intensity to his portrayal of a rueful usurper, sinking rapidly into some sort of paranoid melancholia or manic depression, accompanied by seizures. Even Falstaff seems more lugubrious throughout, as if already sensing a wind-change ahead in Hal’s imminent taking up of the crown. There is one scene particularly well choreographed, when Falstaff talks with lachrymose nostalgia of the ‘chimes at midnight’ with his henchmen around a campfire. But the most strikingly shot scenes are of the Lancastrian knights of the King on horseback hunting down Yorkist renegades through a wintry forest; here Eyre finally comes into his own with some breathtaking camerawork, filming the chain-mailed riders at full gallop through the thin, sharply-lit trees, some of the most beautiful direction this reviewer’s seen in any historical television adaptation before. In terms of cinematography – which is a germane term to use for today’s filmic approach to television – Eyre’s eye for tone and light, particularly for chiaroscuro (the frosted countryside looks almost two-tone throughout), draws some small comparison to the iconic photography of ‘the Swede’, Sven Nykvist, the supremely gifted cinematographer of Ingmar Bergman’s films, whose genius for tone and light made for a peerless chiaroscuro in Bergman’s 40s-60s black and white portfolio, and for phantasmagorical palettes of alternately invigorated or diluted shades in his colour films (as also in his collaborations outside of Bergman, such as with Roman Polanski on The Tenant (1974)). All in all, Henry IV Part 2 was a much more atmospheric and satisfying instalment of The Hollow Crown than the rather too self-conscious and pretentiously shot Part 1. But this reviewer is not likely to reprise his running commentary on this intelligent and visually striking series, since he finds it hard to enthuse about Henry V as a play, therefore is unlikely to be sufficiently interested in its latest adaptation to the extent of writing a review of it. More to the point, he suspects it is likely to much more resemble the muddiness of Kenneth Brannagh’s 1989 version than the theatrical ingenuity and visual panache – based on the disproportionately sized contemporaneous mediaeval pictures of knights in tiny castles – of Laurence Olivier’s 1944 Henry V.

Alan Morrison © 2012