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.
for an epic post!
Imagination of a Feast
To my mind, Henry V
is first about the power of rhetoric and only afterwards about war and its
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
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
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
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
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
Gow: Alexander the
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
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
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
). 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
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,
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.