Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Hollow Crown: Henry IV Part II

[with a small diversion via Heyer]

Henry IV Part II begins, puzzlingly, with a recap. Previously, a super says, and takes us through the important plot points of Part I. If anything could emphasise how far from the stage this four-part series is, how carefully conceived for the small screen, here is proof. Richard Eyre treats the beginning of Part II as he would a soap opera. As though in the space of only a week our attention-deficit memories need to be massaged awake.

That was my first thought; but I wonder if I groaned in disappointment a little hastily. Title sequences in films are often very revealing. So much of what is to come is precis'd in the first couple of minutes. What Eyre does is encapsulate a whole play/film into two minutes and in retrospect, it's quite well done. It's less about bringing viewers up to speed - who's going to come in on Episode 3 of the series, after all? - and more about laying out what was important about the previous film. The recap emphasises the King's disappointment in his son, Hal's wildness, Falstaff's standing in for his father, and - after the rebellion led by Hotspur - Hal's transformation into a warrior prince. We finish with Falstaff stating his expectations of Hal, because clearly, this last is going to be important. It sets up Falstaff's eventual, inevitable downfall.

Falstaff, without Hal - upon whom his gaze snagged often and with some desperation in Part I - is a much more complex character in this film. Barring two scenes with Hal, Falstaff is seen with all kinds of people and in all kinds of contexts and this allows him all the freedom to be bombastic and plausible, often weary and sometimes tender.

But this film belongs to Irons. As the King beset by rebellion, wracked by guilt and troubled by ill-health, still worrying about his heir - lost to him almost as soon as found - Irons is superb. His anger often borders on the querulous but that is the rage of a man not in control of his body. Because these plays are about kingship and mortality, the health of his body and that of the kingdom is identical.

Possibly my two favourite scenes in this film are the two major soliloquies: the King's 'uneasy lies the head that wears the crown' and Hal's speech when he takes away the crown. Eyre stages these two speeches so well: instead of letting them talk to the camera, or in voice over, he lets them say their piece to themselves, and allows them all the time they need.

Irons murmurs to himself and wanders through his Palace as if sleep-walking, past his bedroom (and a bed he has no use for) where a musician plays a soft tune, past guards falling asleep on their feet in chilly corridors but who draw themselves up as the King passes, and to the throne room, where at last he sits in lonely state, unable to sleep or rest.

In the other Hal comes to sit with the King who is asleep after recovering from a fit, and finds the crown on the pillow, and, thinking the King dead, takes it away. Hal also makes his way to the throne room where he wears the crown. This scene is both moving in its tenderness and cringe-inducing for how much Hal is exposing himself to the King's wrath and how invidious his position is, how difficult to believe his excuses.

If I watched nothing else in the film again, I would it watch it for these two scenes (though the scene in Eastcheap with Falstaff and Doll Tearsheet comes a close third).

What is interesting about the play itself is how Shakespeare displaces the political into the personal. The reign of Henry IV was fraught with so much rebellion: Wales, the border towns of the North and the marauding raids by the French along the coast. And yet, all the battles in the play are deflected: Northumberland retires to Scotland in deference to the pleas of his wife and Hotspur's widow, even though his rage at the death of his son was intemperate and extreme. What could have been another pitched battle between the armies led by the Archbishop of York and his allies on the one hand and John of Lancaster and Westmoreland on the other, is averted by what can only be called treachery.

This frees up Shakespeare to meditate on what, for him, is the more important matter: how to be a king. If not by divine right - as Richard II claimed his kingship - how will Henry IV, a ursurper, justify his reign? If Hal has a better right than the King, because his kingship will be inherited and not snatched, then isn't his premature assumption of the crown a kind of treason? These questions and those of allegiance, loyalty, betrayal, guilt, expectation and duty play themselves out in the very human interactions between characters both major and minor.

Hal's transformation into the austere but - by most readings - just king that he becomes, is chilling. If I was slightly uncertain about Hiddleston's Hal in Part I, I think he really owns the character in this film. Though he makes few appearances, every scene makes large demands on his range as an actor and Hiddleston delivers, with subtlety and depth.

[diversion into Heyer begins]

While I was watching Henry IV Part I & II, I was simultaneously reading Georgette Heyer's My Lord John. It was her last, and unfinished book. Her ambition was to actually write a three book series covering the life of John, Duke of Bedford (who, in the play, is Lancaster) which roughly coincided with the entire period from the last years of Richard II's reign to the death of Henry V and John's guardianship of the infant King Henry VI.

For various reasons, mostly financial, Heyer had to keep writing her Regency romances and could work only intermittently on her Plantagenet trilogy. It's a pity, because what fragments of the books there are that make up the single unfinished volume, are characteristically well-researched. Heyer always wore her scholoarship lightly and managed to make the dullest military campaign thrilling because of how well she sketched the characters involved.

My particular weakness is for historical fiction and I can very easily be beguiled into total immersion by one well-told tale. So I've spent the last couple of weeks not just reading the Henriad, but also Heyer, and also another related text on the Battle of Agincourt. In jumping ahead of the tale, as it were, before this Saturday's Henry V, I muddied the waters somewhat but I regret nothing.

There's a lovely bit in My Lord John where Heyer allows the reader into the head of the newly-deposed Richard as he attends the coronation of Henry Bolingbroke. Richard, even in Shakespeare, is a difficult man to empathise with (though I think Ben Whishaw's performance will now be the gold standard for me). In this little first-person diversion, just a page and a half long, Heyer manages to create a character who compels our sympathy and understanding, and is more subtle - if still capricious - than we had supposed.

My posts on Henry IV Part I & Richard II.

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