Sam Mendes’ The Hollow Crown, which I’ve been watching over the past few weeks, is a quartet of plays sometimes known as the Henriad: Richard II, Henry IV Part One and this week’s viewing, HENRY IV Part Two (2012) and HENRY V(2012). The book Shakespeare After All explains that they form a dramatic arc: Bolingbroke usurps the crown from Richard in the first film to become Henry IV, then his son redeems the dubious claim to rule by proving himself a true king. It would also have had added meaning to Shakespeare’s era: the story of how Prince Hal starts out wild, then reforms was common knowledge, as was the awareness that for all Hal’s triumphs in Henry V, they would ultimately be frittered away by his son.
Henry IV Part Two is one I’ve never actually seen before, wherein Tom Hiddleston’s Hal discovers that his reputation as a hedonist still leaves the powers that be (including father Jeremy Irons) suspicious he’s not worthy of the crown, even after his triumph over Hotspur in the field. Ultimately he proves himself not just by valor but by his rejection of Falstaff — hypocritical (he condemns Falstaff at the climax as if he’d never participated in the man’s roguery) but necessary to be a good king. To the cast of Part One, this adds Geoffrey Palmer as the Chief Justice.. “Let order die, and darkness be the burier of the dead.”
I’m familiar with both the Olivier and Branagh versions of Henry V and this falls somewhere in between, neither Olivier’s patriotic morale booster nor quite as gritty as Branagh’s. Hiddleston does a good job as a new king struggling to live up to his responsibilities as he goes to war against France and finally triumphs in the climactic victory at Agincourt (this includes the documented historical fact that he had his knightly prisoners executed when the proper act would be to hold them for ransom). A good job. “If we are marked to die, we are enough to do our country loss; but if to live, the fewer men the greater share of honor!”
The logical follow-up to the Henriad was Orson Welles’ THE CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (1965), which reworks the two part Henry IV to focus on Falstaff (Welles) and his antics, his cheerful but repellent amorality (like Harry Mudd, he’s always looking for an angle) and his final falling out with Hal. Welles does a good job not making the rogue purely sympathetic but showing his corruption as well; with Keith Baxter as Hal, Jeanne Moreau as Doll, Margaret Rutherford as Quickly, Ralph Richardson narrating and John Gielgud as a very icy Henry IV. “There are but three good men in England yet unhung — and one of them is growing old and fat.”
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