*. I really don’t envy the task set before director Thea Sharrock of trying to make another Henry V in the shadow of two of the greatest adaptations of Shakespeare on film: Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film and Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 version. That said, the rest of the Hollow Crown episodes had been very good, and their edition of Richard III with Benedict Cumberbatch was solid, even with Olivier and McKellen as great precursors. So I had my hopes up here.
*. Sadly, I found this to be the weakest of the Hollow Crown films. Not just a disappointment in relation to Olivier and Branagh, but a movie that I think fails in large part by trying too hard to differentiate itself from them. But more on that in a bit.
*. First off though I have to say that in terms of the text of the play this is a radical pruning. The Archbishop’s explanation of Henry’s right to the French crown, usually played as comic, is cut entirely. They weren’t going for laughs. Which is also why Fluellen is given a much restricted role to play, and only as a gruff Welshman and not at all as an ethnic stereotype who talks funny (Captains Jamy and MacMorris have also both disappeared). The exposure of the “three corrupted men” at Southampton is gone. And the editing of the text isn’t just a matter of cutting a few lines here and there. Whole speeches have been disposed of, including important ones like Henry’s attempt to argue against his moral responsibility for his soldiers’ ends. There are some giant gaps here that will startle fans of the play.
*. What’s gained? Well, the business of the glove exchange, which is pretty much dropped in Branagh and totally left out by Olivier, is here in full. Aside from that, not much.
*. I said that they were trying hard to go in a different direction with this production. Not just a greater emphasis on realism or naturalism, but a consistent underplaying of the dramatic highlights.
*. With regard to the first point, things get off to a naturalistic start with the Chorus reduced to a voiceover. None of that meta-stuff from earlier versions, drawing attention to the play as theatrical construct. Then there’s the usual blood and mud of the battles, which by now is a constant that can only be advanced by making it muddier and bloodier. To the point where I kept wondering why, in all the post-battle scenes, Henry hadn’t washed his face. He’d had plenty of time, and I really shouldn’t have been noticing it as much as I did.
*. Also, possibly, there is the fragmenting of the text (by Ben Power) to make it less stagey. I don’t mind this all that much, but I’m not sure anything is gained by it. Certainly all of the rhythm of the language is lost, and I don’t think that rhythm is necessarily unnatural. Branagh, for example, makes it sound fluent. But here’s Tom Hiddleston on what they were going for: “we have for the first time spoken it very differently, spoken with a fluency and an ease, a very sort-of off-the-cuff spontaneity that I think is immediately accessible to the ear. Shakespeare is at its best when you speak it like you’re making it up, when it sounds as if it was written yesterday.” Do we say yea or nay to this? I say nay. Mainly because I just don’t hear the fluency and ease he refers to.
*. The second point I mentioned is the underplaying of the dramatic highlights. Henry V is a play of loud, rousing, set-piece scenes but they come off as muted here. Before Harfleur the “Once more unto the breach” speech is almost whispered by Henry among a group of men huddled together. And then later the St. Crispin’s Day speech is directed, quietly, only to a handful of nobles surrounding Henry. No climbing onto a cart to address the army. To be sure this is something different and new. But how effective is it? Not very.
*. As for music, it is quiet, and many scenes have no score at all. So none of the epic fanfare of William Walton, or the signature arrangement of the Non Nobis by Patrick Doyle. Nothing really memorable at all.
*. I can’t say I liked many of the cuts, or the artistic decisions taken. Why begin with Henry’s funeral? Sure it rounds things off, but what is gained? And if the Boy grows up to be the Chorus (John Hurt), as seems to be suggested, how is that possible, given that Henry died only 7 years after Agincourt? And given how quietly so many of the scenes are played, why stick Hiddleston with having to give a Wrath of Khan howl at the murder of the poys and the luggage (an event that is itself elided, though the English execution of their prisoners is presented in full).
*. In all kinds of ways it’s a production that feels like it’s straining to be different. The French king isn’t feeble or a fool but is a perfectly normal kingly type. Montjoy isn’t supercilious but surly. In such ways Shakespeare’s types (like Fluellen, already mentioned) are, I suppose, made to seem more realistic. But are they any more interesting as characters?
*. A bit of a change, for anyone looking for that. But overall uninspiring. Even Henry’s wooing of Katherine, which really should have been lively given two attractive young people, is pretty dull. There’s a point where a realistic Shakespeare starts to defeat itself, and in the case of this movie I think that’s a line they jumped over.