My complaints about the recastings in “Henry IV, Part 1” undermining the premise of this series – a unified production tackling Shakespeare’s English history plays in sequence – continue here as any impact James Purefoy as Thomas of Mowbray returning is defeated by Pip Torrens taking his place, unrecognisable as the same character except a line or two of easily-missed dialogue saying as much. Why is “Richard II” treated as the off-to-the-side disconnected entry in the series, when it’s so key to the characters, story, and themes in these later instalments?
On its own merits, to my mind this television film is worse than the preceding one, “Henry IV, Part 1”, which was already a step down from “Richard II”. However, a lot of that is due to the nature of the play it’s adapting, rather than any faults in the adaptation itself – the play lacks a strong villain, regresses many characters to the point where they basically just repeat their development in the climax of the preceding play in new ways, and the disparate and padded subplots don’t converge neatly as they did at the Battle of Shrewsbury.
The visuals, performances and general quality of the production are as strong as the last film. The score is also used more appropriately, not as overbearingly as it was used in “Henry IV, Part 1”. Hiddleston and Irons are excellent, particularly in their very powerful scenes together. Simon Russell Beale, playing Falstaff, is clearly a very skilled actor, and has even more to do here than in the last film, but I’m unsure of some of the broader directorial choices of the play regarding the character. Were his scenes intended to be so overwhelmingly melancholy? The two Henry IV plays abound with doubles and contrasts – Falstaff and Henry IV as alternate father figures for Hal, the Boar’s Head inn contrasting with Henry IV’s court, the stability of noble marriages contrasting with the breezy inconsistency of the prostitutes at the selfsame inn, the creative wit Hal hears from Falstaff contrasted with the sterile recitations of the nobles, and so on – so making Falstaff’s scenes so tonally similar to the rest of the dour play felt an odd choice to me, one that perhaps lessened the impact of the ending, where Hal’s position on the two worlds he’s lived in, the high and the low, comes to a head.
Perhaps I should just be happy that the preceding film displayed Falstaff’s joviality well, and instead of taking the use of Falstaff here as a missed opportunity to develop the contrasts established in the play, instead look on him comparatively to Henry IV. Both are sick, coming to terms with their age, both are father figures to Hal, and Hal’s very different treatments of them at the end of the play are the cornerstone of the whole piece. Maybe the overwhelmingly dour tone of this film was intended to immerse the viewers in the mindset of the three main characters (Henry IV, Hal, Falstaff), and keep up the promise of the title, “the Hollow Crown”, not just the arbitrariness of the monarchy but also the Pyrrhic victory that wearing the crown is. After all, “Henry IV, Part 2” is where Henry IV delivers his most famous line – “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” (often misquoted as “heavy lies the crown”) -, played excellently by Jeremy Irons here. Hal’s most potent realisation of that truth comes at the ending, played well by Tom Hiddleston, but Beale steals the show through his reaction.
This adaptation was less enjoyable than the preceding two, but much of that comes from the nature of the text it’s adapting, both in terms of the more dour tone, and sloppier content. Still, a powerful prestige adaptation led by many excellent performers. I give it three and a half bribes, and a thousand pounds.