Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Hollow Crown: Henry V

I really want to reserve judgement on Thea Sharrock’s version of Henry V that concludes BBC2’s Hollow Crown series, because I think the film warrants another, closer viewing. I won’t say I liked or disliked the film; my reactions are a little more complicated than that.

No pretty pictures here - I'm sorry. 

Brace yourselves for an epic post!


The Bare Imagination of a Feast

To my mind, Henry V is first about the power of rhetoric and only afterwards about war and its consequences.

I know the play practically begs to be considered and interpreted as either a pro-war piece of flag-waving jingoism or at the very least as the bravery of the few faced with an enemy that appears all but invincible.

But consider how the play begins: the Chorus asks us to use our imaginations to populate the stage with all that stagecraft cannot provide. If imagination is the first step towards empathy, the audience has already half been won over to the point of view the Chorus wants to present to it.

Throughout Henry V, the King employs all kinds of rhetorical strategies: he turns the Dauphin’s insulting gift of tennis balls into a metaphor for retaliation; at the gates of Harfleur, Henry threatens to carry out the most horrifying excesses upon the people of Harfleur unless the Mayor surrenders – but precisely because he has made these ugly threats, he may have averted a greater loss of life; in disguise, the night before Agincourt, he argues with his soldiers (in what is, for me, the best scene of the play) about who should take responsibility for the consequences of war.

There are, of course, the two grandstanding speeches of the play: Harfleur and Agincourt. ‘Once more unto the breach’ and ‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.’ They are, with good reason, the most remembered parts of Henry V. But let’s not forget that they are deployed by an embattled king with immense subtlety, to put heart into his dispirited soldiers.

If it were only Henry being rhetorical and strategic, the play would quickly grow tedious. The astonishing thing about Henry V is that for a play that mostly happens on grim battlefields and in camps, it has huge amounts of laughter and wordplay. The Princess Katherine has one scene with her lady in waiting that consists entirely of her learning to name various body parts in English. Some of this hilarity is carried over to the last scene, when Henry woos Katherine and their mutual deficiencies in language leads to some sweet and some risqué moments.

Captain Fluellen, in the King’s army, has a peculiar way of speaking that is meant to keep the groundlings in stitches; but under his rather odd word choices, he is always talking about the military conduct of kings in battles past, and about what is the just and right way to behave in battle.

In one scene, excised from the film version*, the French army has just killed all the boys guarding the luggage vans. This is a particularly dastardly and unchivalrous thing to do. The King will shortly be furious; for now, Fluellen is also angry, and Gower tells him that because the French, in addition to having killed all the boys, have also looted the King’s tent, the King has ordered that the throats of all French prisoners captured during battle be cut.

“Oh, ’tis a gallant king!” concludes Gower and we suspect there might be some sarcasm involved.

This is Fluellen (remember that we have just heard some very horrifying news):

Flu: Ay, he was porn at Monmouth, Captain Gower. What call you the town where Alexander the pig was porn?

Gow: Alexander the Great.

Flu: Why, I pray you, is not pig Great? The pig, or the great, or the mighty, or the huge, or the magnanimous, are all one reckonings, save the phrase is a little variations.

Yes, well. I won’t labour the point, but to me this teeny little bit says huge amounts about why Shakespeare peppers the play with wordplay.

Words are important. They can win wars. They can win people over. They can frighten, convince, woo and persuade. In Henry V, they are nearly as important as the battles themselves.

Churchill knew that when he allowed echoes of Agincourt to sound in his speech (with a line borrowed from Henry IV Part I**). Obama also knew it when he became this decade’s King Arthur as he addressed a freezing but hope-filled public one January day.


So Sweet a Hope

Making a film of a Shakespeare play is somewhat akin to making a graphic novel out of his work – a storyboard for a No Fear Shakespeare. There are all these scenes, all these words, but they just won’t fit! We could be here for hours, if we kept every word in the play. So of course there are excisions.

But if we take as given that cinema has its own language, as abstract as speech, as instinctively grasped and understood, then there must be ways to make the pictures say the things that words needn’t.

This has been part of the attraction of watching the entire series: to see what’s been left out and how the slack has been taken up by what’s left. There have been things I haven’t agreed with in the previous three films, but for the most part they have been immersive experiences.

Thea Sharrock’s Henry V is emphatically not an immersive experience. This does not mean I am disappointed – I think there were several interesting things she did that I will want to watch again closely – it just felt much more tentative than the other three films.

I don’t know much about Sharrock except that she has done a lot of very interesting plays on stage, and that this is her film/TV debut. Inexperience could account for a lot of what I find difficult to take in the film. Only lack of thought could account for the horrible, horrible music, which is the single most annoying thing about the film. If it wasn’t being laid on thick to emphasise important speeches it was generic, as if someone had picked out stock music from files marked War, Love, Funeral and so on.  I mean, Sharrock really should have trusted her viewers and her actors more.

Whatever the reason for Sharrock’s hesitant approach, its main effect was to drain the film of all the rah-rah chest-thumping of war. Someone apparently asked Sharrock whether she was going to tackle the film as pro- or anti-war and she was astonished that these were the only two options. It is to her credit that in her hands, this is less a film about war than it is about the futility of temporal ambitions.

The film begins with the funeral of Henry V, which Sharrock borrows from Henry VI. If Henry IV Part II, in Eyre’s hands, began with a Previously, Sharrock’s film begins with a flash forward, to a time when the fruits of all Henry’s labours have ended in death, and in the loss of the realm he has spent this entire play fighting for. In effect, everything that happens – all the battles, all the speeches, the wooing of Katherine, the hopes Henry had of uniting the two kingdoms under his rule – all of it is for nothing.

It is, actually, the only way to read the play – if this is to be the last episode of a series that calls itself The Hollow Crown. Richard, feckless though he was as a king, was prescient about how little kingship is worth:

[F]or within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court; and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp;
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchise, be fear’d, and kill with looks;
Infusing him with self and vain conceit, –
As if this flesh, which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable; and humoured thus,
Comes at the last, and with a little pin
Bores through his castle-wall and – farewell, king!

Having begun with a farewell, where do we even go from here?

Sharrock could have had Henry blithe and unaware of his mortality; this would make the end that much more shocking. She chooses, instead to have the fire in the belly of the king severely banked by a certain – what’s the word for it? I’m sure there’s one in Greek – awareness of endings, of what Donne called ‘a bracelet of bright hair about the bone’.

Put another way, Sharrock’s Henry, Tom Hiddleston, is a man who seems to be aware that he is playing in a tragedy, while everyone else is under the impression that they are participating in a romance or an adventure or even a comedy.

If Sharrock did nothing else right – and there is plenty she could have done better – she did this very well indeed.


Odious Comparisons

My major problem with the film was the lack of thought given to shot-taking, lensing and suchlike.

There were two scenes that I thought were very interestingly composed and shot: the tennis ball scene and the penultimate one where Henry asks Katherine to marry him. In both, there are often more than two people in the frame, at different depths of field. In each scene, the camera takes one full circle around a stationary character, following Henry as he speaks to this mostly off-camera person. (In the proposal scene, he is accompanied – with comic effect – by Katherine’s lady-in-waiting, Alice).  In the first, in conveys menace and in the second, a kind of nervous restlessness***.

The relationship of camera to actor to mise-en-scène is rarely used as well in the rest of the film. There are some acute cut-aways and voice overlaps, and for the most part these are okay. But for most of the film, the shot-taking is unimaginative and stodgy.

This is a real pity, because I couldn’t help comparing Thea Sharrock to someone like Julie Taymor.

I see Taymor as basically a theatre person who has been presented with the whole box of tricks that is cinema and she is so delighted with the gift that she wants to try everything out at once. Sharrock, on the other hand, seems to be the kind of director who would rather use one thing at a time and see how it works and decide if she wants it or not. Until then, the rest of the stuff just sits there.

If Julie Taymor is a kind of Orson Welles, Thea Sharrock is like an even earlier pioneer of cinema who hasn’t yet evolved or theorised her style; is intent upon the subject and hasn’t considered the medium’s own plasticity.

Perhaps the one true measure of the success of a film is the effect is has on the viewer. Despite all its faults, Henry V left me feeling immensely sad – and, like a good tragedy, cleansed. And that, I think, is as it should be.


Epic though this post already is, I must mention the other book I’ve been reading through the watching of this series: Juliet Barker’s Agincourt is a fascinating account of Hal’s early years, his preparations for Agincourt and the battle itself.

The real Henry V was not as he is depicted in Shakespeare. He was 16 when the Battle of Shrewsbury was fought; far from being the wastrel he’s made out to be in the plays, he campaigned hard and for many years in Wales; took his place on the Council when Henry IV was ill and introduced the kind of fiscal discipline that the reigns of both Richard and Henry IV severely lacked.

Among the hugely absorbing things described in the book:

Hal took an arrow in his cheek at Shrewsbury, and while the shaft was removed, the arrowhead was lodged in his cheek for weeks. The King’s doctor finally devised a kind of tong-cum-screw thingy with which he pulled out the head. The wound was treated with honey, apparently, and herbs, for weeks and weeks. And, of course, no anaesthetic.

Speaking of arrows, Barker’s account of how arrows were made, how many arrows a King’s archer must be able to shoot, how the arrows were stockpiled and so on, had me riveted; it was as if I was watching The Dark Knight Rises on an Imax screen.

Bonus comic, for being patient: The Agincourt Gambit

Shockingly good read the book is, I promise you.

Ok. I’m done now.


* I don’t approve of a lot of the excisions. I think Fluellen should have been given his proper due. And the film need not have so literally assisted the Chorus in its descriptions. But the most egregious deletion is Henry’s long and complex argument with his soldiers the night before Agincourt. This speech - I must emphasise that the scene itself isn't deleted - is absolutely essential and so much else could have been cut to make place for this one.

** “England never did owe so sweet a hope”.

***Henry V is, as Sellar and Yeatman might say, A Restless King. Hiddleston never sits still for a moment. He sits on his throne maybe three times, each time for less than half a minute. For the rest of the film, he’s prowling around, or riding, or falling to his knees in prayer. Or talking, of course.

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