PBS ‘Hollow Crown’ ends with the tragedy of ‘Henry V’

While too many of us know the rapacious appetites of King Henry VIII and his calamitous quest for a male heir,  Shakespeare’s history plays provide us with a more noble king, Henry V.  Tom Hiddleston’s King Henry V  is a lean and lovely man, no longer a boy shirking his kingly future, and with “The Hollow Crown” we have seen the transformation. “Henry V” broadcasts on PBS on October 11, 2013 at 9 p.m. Check local listings. 

Kenneth Branagh gave us a blustering, brash “Henry V” in 1989 and his approach lacked proper pacing with his battles soaked in mud and blood.  Roger Ebert found the movie good, but not great:

It was a risk to make this film, and it could have been a disastrous failure, but instead it is a success.

That it is not a triumph is because Branagh the director is not yet as good as Branagh the actor. He knows better how to play Henry V than how to get him on and off the screen, and his pacing could be improved. The film begins slowly, bogs down in the seemingly endless battle scenes and then drags to its conclusion through Henry’s endlessly protracted and coy courtship of Katherine.

Branagh starred and directed the film and Ebert spends much time comparing it to Laurence Olivier’s version. Some weekend, I’ll have to watch all three together, but for now “The Hollow Crown: Henry V” reigns in my mind and heart. These four productions have been thrilling and ends on a note of high tragedy.

“Henry V” is one of those plays that is actually better as a movie. Shakespeare’s production at the Globe couldn’t transport us to the battlefields where much of the action takes place. Without extensive backdrops and backgrounds, Shakespeare used a chorus to describe the scenes and scene changes. In this adaptation, the chorus becomes a narrator, someone who was a lucky witness to history.

For “The Hollow Crown” series, “Henry V” is directed by Thea Sharrock. The adaptation gives us a tragedy with a poignant romantic thread. “Henry IV, Part 2” ended with the death of King Henry IV (Jeremy Irons) and the metaphoric death of Prince Hal. “Henry V” begins with our dear King Henry V dead.

Soon enough we realize we are attending a funeral, the chief mourner is the young and beautiful blonde queen. When the flag is lifted we see a young king, so recently Prince Hal. Our narrator/chorus (John Hurt) takes us back to a young and lively king. Clad in gleaming leather he rides a majestic white horse. He is the dashing knight of young girls’ dreams, galloping on his handsome proud steed alone on the English countryside.  The sun is out and the court is no longer the somber place of gloomily dressed people clad, making solemn pronouncements under cold blue light.

Henry V is not the shallow callow youth whose antics seemed to promise a dissipated foolish king. He is graceful and intelligent, but he doesn’t suffer fools lightly. At Westminster, Henry receives the Ambassador to the French Dauphin, Montjoy (Jeremie Covillaut), to address Henry’s claim to the French throne. Montjoy comes bearing a gift from the Dauphin, one meant to insult a country that has yet to enjoy international tennis fame via Wimbledon. A chest full of tennis balls is not well received.

A stern Henry readies for war while the low classes congregating at the Boar’s Head Tavern, hoping for monetary gain–legitimate as pay and for some by looting, gleefully sign up as new recruits to Henry’s army.  Henry’s old friend, Falstaff is gravely ill and soon dies. Some of his former drinking buddies have little time to reflect on his passing as they are off to war. Henry will only reflect briefly on Falstaff, but much later and in relation to another incident that makes clear he has disavowed his younger days and his companions of that time.

There will be battles, but just enough to give us a taste of the war of those times, enough to justify one of Shakespeare’s best known speeches. When the war is won, diplomacy must follow and one of Henry’s demands is marriage to the French king’s daughter, Katherine (Mélanie Thierry who starred in “The Princess of Montpensier”). Here Shakespeare indulges in romance.

This isn’t the political alliance of a scheming king as in “Richard III,” with a fearful young queen searching for protection. This king is clumsy in his courtship. Katherine speaks French and we see her in an amusing earlier scene learning English from her lady, Alice (Geraldine Page).  The language barrier is used to diffuse some of the awkwardness of a man used to the company of men and not well versed in the courtly ways of courtship. Hiddleston’s Henry is earnest; he’s met his match and been disarmed by a charming and lovely Katherine.

Henry and Katherine marry. They have a son, Henry VI.  They seem happy enough, but Henry V isn’t destined to live long. In “Richard II” we had a king who wasn’t kingly enough. In “Henry IV Part 1,” we had a king who usurped the crown and wore it uneasily with little hope of continuity due to his wastrel son. Prince Hal wasn’t raised to be the heir to the throne, after all. By “Henry IV Part 2,” the son, Prince Hal, has matured and come to terms with his future and becomes king.

In “Henry V,” we finally have a king who is wise, just and yet, can at times allow his great love of his worthy fellows to upset his dignity. His anger humanizes him (Henry’s reaction to the Southampton Plot is omitted in this adaptation).  From this we understand that King Henry V isn’t a cold, heartless man even if he has turned his back on Falstaff and seems to mourn him not at all.

With “Henry V,” we finally have a king who rules well.  Sharrock handles the battle scenes equally well as the moments of romance. Neither victory comes easy for this Henry and he’s more at home among men on the battlefields. However, what deepens our feeling for this king, is our knowledge of his short-lived victory and happy marriage.

Historically, Henry V married Catherine of Valois in 1420. Two years later, at age 35, Henry died of dysentery.

Henry’s only child would become Henry VI and be raised separated from his mother. Henry VI died at age 49 in 1453, a captive the man who would be king the day after his death, Edward IV of the House of York.

This final installment of “The Hollow Crown” is a must-see for fans of Shakespeare and Tom Hiddleston. There’s plenty of time to discuss the merits of different Henrys. I eagerly await future productions of Shakespeare with Hiddleston. “Henry V” will premiere on October 11, 9 p.m. Check local listings. After the initial broadcast, the program will be available on-demand.

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