The premise of this, the BBC’s “The Hollow Crown” television film series, was to adapt Shakespeare’s historical plays in sequence. Adapting them as ultimately a single extended production was meant to bring “weight and depth” to the “iconic characters”, as well as the stories within. Seeing Tom Hiddleston as Hal here, who would later become Henry V, across three television films, both allows the actor to develop their performance with great depth, but also for the impact of the writing to be even more keenly felt, as the viewers see the same figures morph and change over the course of time. The second cycle of this series does the same, chiefly with Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III, but in both cycles, primary characters and side characters are maintained in this ambitious, powerful method of sequential storytelling.
Why, oh why, then, was Henry IV (and, to a lesser extent, Northumberland) recast for this, “Henry IV, Part 1”? Was not the entire premise of “The Hollow Crown” to adapt Shakespeare’s histories as a sort of prestige drama in the stylings of television? With recurring casts? Why were Rory Kinnear and David Morrisey not brought back here to continue their performances? Why bring on entirely different actors? Jeremy Irons and Alun Armstrong don’t emulate any part of Kinnear or Morrisey’s performances; they feel nearly like entirely different characters. Irons is a fantastic, brilliant actor, and he delivers a magnificent performance here, but I’m utterly baffled by why the team behind “The Hollow Crown” undercut the main novelty of their entire production by recasting Kinnear.
Continuity with “Richard II” is tenuous; while it’s referred to in dialogue, there are no flashbacks, there are no attempts to marry the performances of the different actors playing the same people…overall, it feels woefully divorced from the previous production. Deeply disappointing, when so much of the appeal of the series to me was the continuity.
Taken entirely on its own merits, the adaptation is very good. Hiddleston makes for an excellent Hal, Simon Russell Beale is a most memorable Falstaff, Joe Armstrong gets the fervour of Hotspur just right, and Irons is as skilled as every in the titular role (although I found Kinnear’s performance of the character more nuanced). Still, he nails the relationship between himself and his son, which feels like the centrepiece of the story. One of my very favourite scenes was where Hal, at the Boar’s Head inn, imitates his father, carrying out a most amusing pantomime of Jeremy Irons’ cadence and delivery. They really did feel like father and son.
The film lacks the visual splendours of “Richard II”, or any sequence as memorable as the beach scene or montages in that preceding film, but the Battle of Shrewsbury is a particular highlight, staged very well. Hal and Hotspur’s swordfight was choreographed well, in a way that felt dramatic and engaging, but also realistic to the time. Still, director Richard Eyre certainly falls short of the high standards set by Rupert Goold’s direction of “Richard II”, disappointing both in being a plainly lesser affair, and for breaking visual continuity that might have been important in establishing the connections between the films, already so disrupted by the recastings.
For many reasons, this is a much lesser work than the preceding film, but it still has many strengths, not least of which is the excellent performances. I give it three and a half boar’s heads, and an overbearing score.