Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Hollow Crown: Henry IV Part I

At the beginning of Henry V, Shakespeare brings on a Chorus that urges us, the viewers, to use our imagination to fill out the stage with battlefields, soldiers in their numbers and kings.

Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts:
Into a thousand parts divide one man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoof i’ the receiving earth;
For tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings.

For those of us used to reading, rather than watching the plays performed, this hardly needs to be said: of course we imagine everything. But when we begin to watch a performance, the demands on our imagination becomes variable. The proscenium stage still asks us to supply with our mind’s eye what it cannot provide in detail or in quantity.

Film is a different beast altogether. It can be as particular or as stylised as it likes but more often than not it falls on the side of particularity and realism, and leaves less to the imagination than the stage or the page.

I was thinking of this Chorus when I began watching Eyre’s adaptation of Henry IV Part I and going over some portions of Richard II. When Richard returns from Ireland and makes his ‘tell sad stories of the death of kings’ speech, he is drowned out by the roaring of the sea. In all the times I’ve read the play, it never once occurred to me – though I knew this was happening on a beach – that the sound of the sea would be so overwhelming and must be taken into account while listening to this fantastically self-pitying screed. Right there was an instance of my inadequate imagination being shown up by a careful filmmaker. How would it be exercised in Henry IV?

The film began, I thought, promisingly: the first two scenes are intercut with each other in a way that Shakespeare himself might have approved of. The contrast between the dour and bleak palace and the noise and warmth of Eastcheap was quickly drawn. Because so much of the first part of the play depends upon performance, the imagination perforce takes a break while we pay attention to the actors. But once the Battle of Shrewsbury began, I thought the film lost much of its force because it had neither the choreography nor the numbers to make it film-real. This would have been a good place to stylise the action and let the viewer’s imagination supply the numbers and the blood.

My biggest problem with the film, though, was the interpretation of Falstaff. Falstaff is nothing if not an anarchic counterpoint to kingship’s roll call of honour, valour and fairness. He is the opposite of Henry IV: cunning, venal, guilt-free in the performance of his petty crimes; what's more, he thinks that ‘honour is a mere scutcheon’.

In this version, played by Simon Russell Beale, Falstaff is a needy old man who is constantly watching Hal to measure the extent of his affection and loyalty. In playing Falstaff as an alternate father-figure to Hal, Eyre and Beale have unfortunately leached the - shall we say - glorious purpose from Falstaff's character.

That fantastic set-piece at the Boar’s Head, when Falstaff urges Hal to rehearse his interview with the King in a little play-within-a-play and an audience-within-an-audience, things go well initially: Falstaff plays his King for laughs and he gets them. The audience is raucous and bawdy and Hal insolent as he offers to 'depose' Falstaff and play his own father. As Hal ascends the throne, Falstaff flounces in Hal’s discarded leather jacket most endearingly (reminding me strongly, for some reason, of Hoshang).

Tom Hiddleston as Hal mimicks Jeremy Irons as the King so well that it might well be the best inside joke of the film. Hal piles insult upon insult and Falstaff preens as if they were compliments. And then, when it comes to the ‘banish the world but not Jack Falstaff’ bit, it all falls apart: music swells over the last part of this scene and we have an egregious close up of Falstaff, all teary-eyed and emotional and it is such a huge misreading of the scene: if anyone is aware of the finitude of this friendship, it is Hal and not Falstaff.

The other great misstep with Falstaff is to make a voice-over of his Honour soliloquy. While there’s nothing particularly wrong with the use of the voice-over – Hal’s at the beginning worked well enough – it is completely misplaced on the eve of battle. After all, Falstaff’s plays the coward and the braggart completely unapologetically through the battle. He drinks sack, plays dead rather than fight, and claims Hotspur’s corpse as his legitimate booty, in the teeth of Hal’s almost-disbelieving astonishment. His ‘the better part of valour is discretion’ speech is addressed direct to the camera.

Which is why the effect of Falstaff walking along the camp watching the soldiers prepare, and say his Honour soliloquy in voice-over while he looks grave, is more farcical than tragic. It was counterfeit Battle of Helm’s Deep.

But what was lost in Falstaff was more than made up for in Harry Percy. Joe Armstrong chewed up every scene he was in and I was half-wishing that Eyre had kept every line in the play, even if it added another hour to the run time, if it could keep Percy on screen for longer.

On the whole, though, despite the less than compelling Falstaff and the indifferently staged battle scenes, there was plenty to like and think about in the film. And of course, the central relationship being between the King and Hal, those scenes were well thought-out and played; in any case, Hiddleston has always played troubled relationships with fathers rather well* and this one is practically textbook.

Though the play doesn’t indicate as much, I thought it was clever to emphasise the King’s illness at the very end of Part I, in preparation for Part II.

Henry IV Part II screens on BBC2 tonight.


*That's probably a separate post in itself; perhaps another time.


km said...

That Shakespeare quote should be made required reading for all SF and Fantasy filmmakers and writers.

Great post, btw. (Not the least because I am intensely envious of people who possess Shakespeare knowledge :))

Anonymous said...

beautiful :-)