The Hollow Crown Disc 4: Henry V, William Shakespeare

Tom Hiddleston as Henry V
There is good Shakespeare and bad Shakespeare, and I think the difference is whether the director/actors are fighting the text or working with the text, and to be fair, in my time in theater I have done both. One tip-off is how much "extra-textual" (or intra-textual) material gets put in. To me, that indicates the director and/or actor is struggling, trying to communicate a vision or emotion in spite of the text instead of through it.

There is A LOT of extra-textual material in "The Hollow Crown: Henry V" (2013), from the framing device of Henry the Fifth's funeral - which is ahistorical, since Henry V died in France and only his bones were transported back - to additional shots of Henry riding a horse, shooting a long-bow, sailing on a ship, etc.. I can let some of those go as visual filler behind the Chorus, but there are also "meaningful" moments - glances exchanged (because they have no lines), or a bloodied scrap of cloth in the hands of the boy who "grows up" in the last moment of the film to become the Chorus.

Kenneth Branagh as Henry V
I have the 1989 Kenneth Branagh Henry V seared into my brain, so it was very interesting to watch a completely different version of the same play. Although even calling it "the same play" feels somewhat misleading - all movie versions of the play will almost certainly cut lines, but the 2013 Tom Hiddleston included a great many lines Branagh cut, and cut a great many lines Branagh included, so that one has the strange sense of watching a kind of "inverse" version of the text. The Hiddleston version cut all of the "Upon the King," soliloquy, which still amazes me, and dropped the entire traitor plot with Cambridge, Scroop, and Grey, which I think is also a great pity. One of the things you lose is the sense that France is coming after Henry, if Henry doesn't move against them.

What the 2013 version does give you is a probably more historically accurate picture of Henry's army straggling back toward Calais and a sense of doom going into Agincourt. Hiddleston delivers his "St. Crispin's Day" speech to a small group of his top lords while the commoners are standing in formation elsewhere, and it is a quiet speech in comparison to Branagh's. Branagh pulls out all the stops with a musical score, moving among his men and gathering them together in rousing camaraderie that makes you want to stand up and cheer. It's easier to see how Branagh's band of brothers carries the day against the odds.

Act V scene ii
Hiddleston, whom I liked as Hal, felt flat and humorless to me as Henry V, which is probably more historically accurate, but much less fun to watch. I particularly missed this in the final "wooing of Kate" scene, where the dominate feeling was "This is an arranged match and we might as well make the best of it." This is when I want to see Hal come back. It is an odd scene, for Henry to excuse himself as being a soldier, unable to speak of love. Surely, surely the Hal of Henry IV has more brains and imagination, but Hiddleston took these lines very seriously, playing a soldier king who looked exceedingly uncomfortable and out of his element.

What I came away with was a History Play about a particularly ugly, bloody period of time. If they hadn't been fighting in the mud at Agincourt, they probably would have been fighting in the mud at Shrewsbury again, or somewhere else: a king's strength, a man's worth, is defined by his ability to outlast his opponent in a primitive and barbaric form of warfare. Perhaps this was the point that fit with the theme of "the hollow crown," but it was depressing rather than inspiring. It seems such a waste for Hal and all he claims to have learned from his past experience.

I had a follow up thought about some parts that got cut, chiefly the "traitors" scene (Act II scene ii) and the Welsh, Irish, and Scot captains at Harfleur.... I keep thinking about Henry IV's injunction to his son to "busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels," at that part of the traitors scene is to show that if he doesn't do something, 1) France is coming after him, and 2) he'll spend his kingship defending himself from treasonous uprisings the same way Henry IV found he had to. And I think the importance of the captains at Harfleur is showing the animosities (and occasional comedy) of the various parts of Britain, but united under Henry and his cause. The weirdest part of the traitor scene is Henry's condemnation of Scroop:

But, O,
What shall I say to thee, Lord Scroop? thou cruel,
Ingrateful, savage and inhuman creature!
Thou that didst bear the key of all my counsels,
That knew'st the very bottom of my soul...

It goes on. The sense of betrayal is powerful and personal, but it doesn't really connect up to Henry IV does it? If this had been Poins, or Poins had been Scroop, it would make complete sense, but who has been so close to the king in friendship who was not in the Henry IV plays? I suppose a friendship that emerges in the time period between Henry's coronation and the events of Henry V, but it feels like such a lost dramatic opportunity.