Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film

44. Richard Eyre’s Henry IV, Part 1 (2012)

There is no Richard II in episode two of The Hollow Crown, so already there was good reason to hope.

Episode two presents Henry IV, Part 1.

The title role is played not by Rory Kinnear, who performed the role admirably in Richard II, but instead by Jeremy Irons.

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I presume this change was to simulate the jump in years the series takes. What is lost is that sense, right out of the gate, that the series lacks the continuity it was hoping to foster by coordinating its efforts like a Peter Jackson epic, or something out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But then what one gains is Jeremy Irons.

Just as Julius Caesar isn’t mostly about Caesar, though, Henry IV Part 1 and 2 have two other major roles: Prince Harry, played by Tom Hiddleston (speaking of the Marvel Cinematic Universe), and Sir John Falstaff, played by Simon Russell Beale.

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The producers of The Hollow Crown might be forgiven over the string of episodes for naming this program the way they did.

Indeed, Richard II was an intolerable bit of hand-wringing about the fallibility of the supposedly divine right of kings. Part of what made that film hard to watch is that we, or Americans in a post-Nixon world anyway, have no such illusions about our leaders.

But Henry IV and Harry and Falstaff approach the ideals of nobility and one’s faith in these ideas more complexly. Henry, who ascended the throne in a coup over Richard II, cannot have the same hubris that Richard had about his nobility, which means that he can have no clear assurances at all about ruling England. If not from God, his mandate appears from nowhere in particular.

For the middle ages, this would have been radical.

Prince Henry intuited this problem, and therefore cultivated a reputation as a bad boy of privilege who slummed around with common drunkards and minor criminals rather than perform the customary duties of a prince at court.

While Hal (the prince’s nickname) seems to enjoy this misadventures, nevertheless, he is doing them to craft a political narrative by which he will seem noble not by the accident of his birth, but by contrast to his previous rough behavior.

Great Performances: The Hollow Crown - Henry IV Part One

His best friend in these scrapes is Falstaff, a knight whose title likely has its provenance in his own imagination. Like all the vices rolled into one fat, proud package, Sir John is like the presiding king of the bar scene.

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One of my articles of faith in Shakespeare is that a good production can be understood by any English speaker on a first viewing. That might not be completely true in this case.

The plot of Henry IV Part 1 might get the viewer into the weeds in a hurry. Henry is dealing with political conflicts at home, with skirmishes in Scotland and Wales that leaves him arguing with the Percy family, who helped him rise to the throne over Richard.

The Percies are bitterly disappointed that the king does not (1) remember their service to him and (2) treat them with the loyalty they feel they deserve. Henry is frustrated that his command as king could seem so contingent to such angry, rebellious subjects—even though it was he himself who undermined the divine right of kings.

What makes this all the more frustrating to him is that young Henry Percy—whose nickname is Hotspur—shows so many noble and fierce qualities as a nobleman and soldier and leader, while his own son, Harry, is a dissipated, boozy lout.

Henry IV switches between the English court, the tavern, and the activities of the Percies. If one can follow the plot, and reading just as much summary as I have provided might accomplish that, then this film takes what has always seemed to me to be an uneven ramble of a play and makes it compelling.

Simon Russell Beale is considered the finest Shakespearean actor of his generation, yet has seldom had good opportunities to show this off in film. (Branagh made him the second gravedigger, rather than the first, in Hamlet.) In Falstaff, he was performing what was one of Shakespeare’s most beloved creations in his day.

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What is so remarkable is that he did not play Falstaff in comically broad terms, and while I wasn’t certain about this choice the first time I saw the film, the performance grows upon me with each viewing. There is a pathos to his sir John that shows the character to have a self-awareness about his own untenable situation, which makes his entry into the war with the Percies that much more poignant.

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As Hal, Tom Hiddleston’s smile, that angular, restless grin, seems to be the key to the intelligence of his performance. That and his willingness to be sweaty and greasy.

Hotspur, played by Joe Armstrong, shows himself to be a worthy adversary, somehow sounding uncouth, yet shrewd in his Scottish accent. The biggest surprise with the Percy plot, however, is how well Michelle Dockery transforms Lady Percy’s protestations about her husband’s plans from potentially mealy-mouthed feminine whining to a wife’s tough, keen assertion of being half of the pairing her marriage has made her.

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We see real love between these two strong personalities, and that raises the dramatic stakes. Instead of a two-dimensional villain, Percy is a likable and bold human being who will die for his extended family, even if he does not get along with them.

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Jeremy Irons plays the king largely through breathing, and through his attempts to control not only the volume of his own speech, but others as well. And he plays the king in Part 1 as troubled by medical ailments—perhaps it is consumption, or heart palpitations, or both or more.

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Irons does not overplay this melodramatic tic, and instead uses it to infuse the outcome of the battle with more complex emotions other than mere, bland triumph.


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John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.

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