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Well, you have to see this.
Even if you don't watch the three prequels, The Plantagenet Identity, The Plantagenet Legacy and the Plantagenet Ascendancy (RII, HiVi & HIVii).
It's classic Shakespearean filmmaking with a superb cast, mostly excellent direction, great cinematography and an absolutely outstanding central performance from Hiddlestone, which finally stepped out of the shadows of those of his famous predecessors as the play reached its climax. And there are other actors turning in their film-career best here too, Anton Lesser and Melanie Thierry for example.
All in all, the best Shakespeare the BBC has ever done. Hiddlestone may take the laurels for his three performances as Hal, the not-so-callow, not-so-innocent teenage chrysalis who turns into a malevolent Machiavellian butterfly but Whishaw's utterly brilliant Richard II is a very good reason to start the cycle from the beginning, as intended.
The quartet of plays builds on the Shakespearean tradition of adapting for cinema while retaining as much as possible of Shakespeare's imaginative manifesto as we have it in the play's Prologue, demanding imaginative effort of the part of the viewer rather than supplying every conceivable horse and nail.
The drama is built with a theatrical approach to casting and mise-en-scene, resisting (mostly) the temptation to colour the action with simulated CGI reality. Shot entirely in the UK, the outdoor locations are always beautifully chosen but never needlessly populated with thousands of digital soldiers. There are CGI glimpses of mediaeval England and French armies here and there but they never dominate the theatrical requirement to distinguish drama from scene-setting. Olivier's version started in the theatre and then cut away, wider and wider until the famous charge and the immense Agincourt scenes. Here, the camera stays focused on the main players throughout and even the famous 'band of brothers' speech, though spoken on an outdoor battlefield, manages to retain a theatrical intimacy.
Hats off to the BBC who, whatever I or anyone else says about them, can still deliver when it matters.
Of the four films in this BBC mini-series, Henry V was the first of
them that I had seen several times in fact; I'd seen the two film
versions and once on stage in Stratford (in a version where the French
court lowered on swings from the rafters, to visually set them apart
from the English). I was curious to see this version though because I
had never seen the film in the context of the connected plays (with
characters running across). Additionally, given how sombre and low-key
the previous three films had been, I was interested to see what the
makers would do with this play one that is traditionally flag-waving
in its delivery and one that is usually quoted anytime England play
France in any major sporting tournament!
Although the sombre tone continues I actually found it to work pretty well because it does carry on themes from the previous films but also it helps it avoid competing directly with the much more famous film versions with Branagh and Olivier. The connection to the previous films is good because we get to contrast this fresh King Harry with those that had gone before him those vein and doomed, those racked with guilt and illness and see him as something much more heroic and worthy of the title. This is flipped nicely though by the context of the characters from Hal's youth who are sacrificed in his sudden rise to honour, and it did move me to understand for the first time who the hung soldier was and also the references to Falstaff early on. Henry V here is very much playing for the greater good, not personal feelings and, while he may seem harsh, there is a reason for it that we didn't see with the other kings.
I did feel the absence of the flag-waving grandeur to a certain degree though, in particular the main speech of the film is rather muted as it is given to a small group of men. It took a few lines to accept this but actually it also worked pretty well, mainly because Hiddleston benefits from how closely it is played. He is generally very good here, not dominating the character but easing out the side of the shadow to make it his own, he is good looking, commanding and delivers well. The supporting cast support him well and I enjoyed Ritter as Pistol and Thierry as Kate in particular. The supporting cast has plenty of faces in Hurt, Griffiths, Joseph and a few others, but the film belongs to Hiddleston and whether making tough stands or wooing Kate, he is really good.
The Hollow Crown series didn't always win me over but the final two films I enjoyed a great deal. Certainly seeing this film in context for the first time was helpful but I also thought the muted tone (compared to other versions of Henry V) worked pretty well. Not perfect and I understand why for some it didn't work, but for me it was a strong finish to this mini-series.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Now that that's out of the way, I have to say that while Hiddleston delivers a strong performance as Henry V, the rest of the cast falls somewhat flat. The cinematography is great and the legendary Geraldine Chaplin is superb as the Nurse but the rest of the cast is somewhat meh. If you're expecting a retread of Kenneth Branagh's glorious (and still to my mind definitive) movie version, you'll be disappointed. Certain scenes from the Shakespeare play have been bafflingly omitted as well but that's just the former English major in me talking. Hiddleston and Whishaw are two of Britain's new crop of talented actors and they're both the primary reasons to watch this.
As I being, I should warn you that my opinions are heavily biased in
favour of the Branagh adaptation, as it is my favourite adaptation of
Let's see. Comparing the Duke of Exeter in this version to Brian Blessed in the previous, I can easily say that Anton Lesser looks like a weak push-over compared to Blessed's menacing executor of Henry's will. He's the one that bugged me most.
Hiddleston does not give a bad performance, but his speeches are completely robbed of passion, evident from his soldiers' reaction to them (they couldn't look less impressed). Removing the Southampton scene was also a bad idea - Only thing I liked more than Branagh was the Harfleur speech, adding civilians to it made it much more menacing (although again, there is not much passion to the speech).
The Duke of York, whose change of actor from Richard II is a little bit awkward, dies in the most anti-climatic way possible. Two English commanders and a French commander just quit the battlefield to kill each other?
And of course, the Archbishop of Canterbury. It seemed like he was more forced to delivering his lines, rather than being the manipulating priest he was in the Branagh version. It's a wonder he even managed to sway Henry into a decision.
It's been an orderless review, but I should mention the Battle of Agincourt again. After the battle in Henry IV pt. 1, I expected to see a gritty and muddy adaptation of Agincourt. What I found, instead, was a boring time-filler. Unwise camera angles show you how small the battle actually is compared to what it should be.
Overall, it was a very disappointing adaptation of Henry V, and compared to earlier plays in the Hollow Crown series, it fell short.
Despite my initial excitement, this turned out to be the least
interesting part of The Hollow Crown. Admittedly, my judgement is
somewhat clouded by Jamie Parker's magnificent performance at the Globe
Theatre, but I simply did not get the kick out of this production that
the play would normally deliver.
Let's get the bad stuff out of the way first. Using Henry's funeral as the opening scene completely altered the tone, bringing one of depression and futility to the whole show. Secondly, I felt the cutting choices were very poor indeed. Cutting out the Southampton scene with the three traitors felt like a mistake, for that scene provides a lot of insight into the brutality of Henry V. This brings me onto my third point: Tom Hiddleston's performance. I understand that with regard to the performance history behind this character, which includes Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton and Kenneth Brannagh, it is very difficult to make this role ones own and by extension do something new with it. Hiddleston attempts this and fails rather miserably. It's just embarrassing when he states that his soldiers 'stand like greyhounds in the slips' and then it cuts to the soldiers looking uninspired and frightened. Similarly, the St. Crispin's Day speech had the potential to be incredible, because the army was standing nearby ready to be inspired. Jamie Parker can afford to underplay this speech due to the theatrical values, having to make the audience his army instead of having a real one. Hiddleston has the men, but instead chooses to whisper to his Lords, thereby completely killing the drama and excitement of the scene.
In contrast to this, I thought that Pistol, Bardolph and Nym were played superbly. The farewell scene outside the Boar's Head almost brought me to tears, with the cold, silent delivery of the lines being totally appropriate to the tone of the scene. Similarly, I thought that the caution of the French King and the petulance of the Dauphin were very well acted and portrayed. The scenery of the campaign was also very well selected and filmed, although frankly the final battle was a bit thin, and lacked the adrenaline and terror that was so well delivered in Henry IV Part I.
On the whole, I found the whole production just disappointing. After the stunningly compelling adaptation of Richard II, Henry V simply doesn't do enough for a finale. The whole thing just feels a bit limp, and in a play of this magnitude and fame, regardless of interpretation, you simply cannot scrimp on production values or acting ability. Intense tragedies can do this and it works, but Henry V is BIG, and as such one should really pull out all the stops when tackling it.
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