“The Hollow Crown: Henry V” opens years after the events of the play it’s based on, showing the titular character’s funeral procession, lingering on a shot of his dead face as the title card “Henry V, by William Shakespeare” flashes on-screen. This inclusion is not part of Shakespeare’s play, nor of most other adaptations. It signifies a commitment to the title of the series, a BBC television film series aiming to adapt the four plays of Shakespeare’s first historical “Henriad” sequence cohesively as a unified production, “The Hollow Crown”, taken from a speech from Richard II; “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground / and tell sad stories of the death of kings”.
The hollowness of the crown, the arbitrariness of the monarchy, is a huge factor not in the “Richard II / Henry VI, Part 1 / Henry VI, Part 2 / Henry V” sequence, but also in the following “Henry VI, Part 1 / Henry VI, Part 2 / Henry VI, Part 3/ Richard III” sequence that the BBC ended up adapting under the same “The Hollow Crown” banner some years later. Bolingbroke/Henry IV’s unlawful deposition of Richard II sets off the chain of events that culminates in the birth of the Tudor dynasty, and the end of the reign of Plantagenet, Lancaster, and York. What is it that then fills a crown, if the circumstances of one winning it are meaningless? What did Henry V have that led him to do the impossible and win France? What did Henry VI lack, that led him to lose it?
My reading of the play as Shakespeare wrote it is that Henry V understood the power of language. The importance of language is a consistent theme in the play, from the alienation audiences feel in the scenes consisting entirely of spoken French, the rhetorical brilliance of Henry V enlivening and motivating the English to triumph against the French against all odds, and the Chorus guiding the audience into a shared mental construct where the audience’s imagination synthesise with the Chorus’ (Shakespeare’s in truth) language to create an experience of such grand spectacle as the historical events themselves. This adaptation doesn’t lean as heavily on that reading as I do, somewhat understandably. In film, the camera itself already is something of a “muse of fire”, so having the Chorus (played excellently by John Hurt) actually recite his prologues feels awkward at times – the spectacle of the Battle of Agincourt is literally visually displayed to the viewers, we don’t need the Chorus to excuse the lack of armies on-stage, because we are actually effectively seeing armies on-screen. A subtler point about audience participation and imagination being key in the postmodern conception of fiction as a two-way relationship between author and audience, rather than a one-way transmission from the author, would work, but that’s rather difficult to communicate in a film consisting entirely of Shakespeare’s original language.
Instead of that ever-present focus on language, the film takes something of a jingoistic bent – not to the extent of the 1940s Laurence Olivier adaptation (considered quite literal propaganda by some for its focus on the nationalistic elements of the play and the fact the British government funded it as a “morale booster” during wartime), but still noticeably. Henry V’s “we happy few” speech is staged here fittingly, with Henry V surrounded just by a “happy few” rather than endless legions of soldiers as in some more literal and less faithful adaptations, but his triumph over the French seems here more a result of the acumen of the British rather than the possibly more realistic explanation that the weather hampered the mounted French and the English longbows proved an excellent weapon against them (the direction Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 adaptation takes), or a result of the motivating, reality-bending power of language Henry V uses with his men. This adaptation lacks any blatant jingoism, but it seems jingoistic by process of elimination if nothing else – how else did Henry V triumph? What else is the idea behind this play? The film itself was made as contribution to the British “Cultural Olympiad” in 2012.
The technical aspects of the production were mostly great, particularly the staging of the Battle of Agincourt, where stellar performances, suitable (but not overpowering, as in some of the earlier films of the series) music, sharp choreography, and deft editing combined in a transcendent sequence. However, ADR was really, really noticeable at points, to the point where odd hissing could be heard, and the levels of different actor’s voices were wildly different in some dialogues.
My biggest issue with the film is the same issue I had with the preceding adaptations of “Henry IV”; the series undercuts its own promise to form a cohesive, linear, sequential adaption of Shakespeare’s Henriad with the continuity of a modern television or film series (that is, retaining recurring actors for characters, cohesive visual style, adherence to continuity spanning individual entries, and so on), as some actors reprise their performances from the earlier entries (like Tom Hiddleston, skillfully charting the titular character’s evolution from the preceding plays logically, and generally doing the continuity work through his performance unaided, apart from the rare short flashback) yet others bizarrely don’t. Here, Paterson Joseph plays the Duke of York. He’s a great actor, and gives a great performance. But, would anyone unfamiliar with the plays realise he is the same character portrayed by Tom Hughes in “The Hollow Crown: Richard II”, the Duke of Aumerle? The character was one of Richard II’s closest friends, who at the ending of the film is shamed for his plans to rebel against the upstart Bolingbroke/Henry IV, but is condescendingly forgiven by the new king and, in a sequence original to the adaptation, kills Richard II himself as penance? Very powerful stuff, quite literally the climax of the first film in the series, and nearly everybody watching this, ostensibly the last film of the series (as thought at the time), won’t realise that an integral character in this film, is that very same character. There are no flashbacks indicating so, Paterson Joseph and Tom Hughes look nothing alike, and the character himself wouldn’t have aged nearly as much at this point in history to necessitate recasting with an older actor. It’s a painfully enormous missed opportunity.
This adaptation lacks focus at times, and sometimes undercuts itself by neglecting its own unique potential, but is still a marvellous work, excellently-made, and upheld by powerful performances. I give it four longbows, and a hand in marriage.