My original working title for this article was “Second Breakfast: Brush Up Your Shakespeare 9: The Hollow Crown, Part 2: Henry IV, Part 1”, but I decided against it.
The Hollow Crown: Henry IV, Part 1 (2012)
The Plot: Decades after the conclusion of Richard II, Henry IV (Jeremy Irons) faces his own insurgence after losing the loyalty of the bombastic young Northern Lord Henry Percy (a.k.a. Hotspur) (Joe Armstrong), who leads a contingency of Englishmen possessed of the belief that Henry’s kingship was ill-earned. With the King gradually worsening in health, the responsibility of halting Hotspur’s rebellion falls to the Prince of Wales, Hal (Tom Hiddleston), who up until this point has shirked all responsibilities of nobility to hang around taverns and bars, mainly in the company of the old, portly, drunken reveler Sir John Falstaff (Simon Russell Beale).
Henry IV, Part 1 is among my top five favorite Shakespeare plays ever. It functions incredibly well as one part of four (or eight, depending on how you’re counting), but also perfectly as a standalone work. Hal’s character arc, continued in Part 2 and Henry V is not only Shakespeare’s best, but among the best ever in fiction. His relationship with his father is complex and layered; only slightly less so than his relationship with Falstaff. In these three characters, Shakespeare captures an insightful cross-section of manhood, covering a wide range of qualities, humors, emotions, and faults, constructing a deep psychological understanding of humanity. Though all three of Hal’s appearances are important, Part 1 is really the best play. Now, you may wonder if because this is a personal favorite of mine I’ll be extra-hard on an adaptation of it. The answer is, if I’m going to be totally honest, probably yes, but I’m going to try my hardest to be fair.
The film is directed by Richard Eyre, who’s become fairly experienced with Shakespeare over the years, but in my opinion is always just slightly lacking. Still, he gets things close. At the very least, his direction is generally inoffensive. While Rupert Goold, who directed Richard II, occasionally drifted into self-indulgence, he still provided a richly formalist visual style peppered with symbolism and layered images. Eyre’s style lacks this, but only because he focuses so heavily on his actors and characterization. The only major flaws are in the lengthy soliloquies. There are four important ones throughout the play: one for Hal, one for Henry IV, and two for Falstaff. Henry’s is cleverly staged and works very well. For Hal’s and one of Falstaff’s, Eyre adapts the technique used by Laurence Olivier in Hamlet: representing the internal monologue by way of voiceover narration. I didn’t really like it when Olivier did it, but it was especially problematic here because we get voiceover from two separate characters, but only once each, which rather befuddles the conceit of the narration. Rather than maintaining this for Falstaff’s other soliloquy, though, Eyre has Beale break the fourth wall and look directly at the camera, addressing the audience. This is incredibly jarring. It’s the kind of error I would expect from a newcomer like Goold, but certainly not a veteran like Eyre.
Fortunately for Eyre, these grievances are minor and forgettable in the presence of the performances, which are so good as to repair all other wrongs. When Jeremy Irons is the weak part of an ensemble, you know you’re doing well. Irons doesn’t do anything particularly wrong, but he lacks flair and ingenuity. When comparing him to Tom Hiddleston, he comes across as an experienced actor who thinks he doesn’t have to try as hard because he’s the most famous member of the cast. Hiddleston on the other hand, who’s a very nice man in person, provides a spot-on reading of Shakespeare’s best character. In every delivery of every line, every facial expression, every slight movement, every stance, Hiddleston captures the complexities the character, devoting equal time and energy to faults and virtues. I was excited when I first heard about the casting, and was far from disappointed upon actually viewing the performance.
And then there’s Falstaff. I remember thinking of Simon Russell Beale as an odd choice for the character. The character is rotund, slovenly, witty, and overall hilarious. He’s considered by actors, critics, and academics alike to be one of the greatest clown characters of all time. Beale takes this comedic persona and without altering a word of the dialogue, transforms him into a tragic hero. There’s not a minute he’s onscreen that my heart isn’t breaking for him. Though he tries to be funny and lighthearted, he cannot hide the overwhelming sadness and desperation he feels at Hal’s looming coronation. Falstaff loves Hal, despite the verbal abuse and constant mockery, and in loving Hal he knows him intimately, and he knows that when the time comes, Hal will not shirk his royal responsibilities, and he will abandon Falstaff. Eyre and Beale construct a pathetic and hopeless world in the taverns of London. There’s a heavy monotony to the revelry and drinking. We get the impression that Falstaff and his companions lead the lives they do simply because that’s what they’re used to, but if they once loved it, they do no longer. Hal is the only thing that Falstaff truly loves, and he’s going to lose him soon. Though a braggart and coward, Falstaff is the most sympathetic character in the film. Beale’s performance should never be forgotten. It’s rare to find a flawless performance in film, and I think even rarer to find a flawless performance of a famous Shakespeare character in film. I can say with some confidence and certainty that this is the best realization of Shakespeare’s character I’ve ever seen on film. As a side note directed to people who know this play well, the “I do, I will” moment is perfect.
The other performances hold up. Joe Armstrong’s Hotspur is appropriately fiery, Michelle Dockery does a nice job as Lady Percy, and Julie Walters is an absolute gem as Mistress Quickly. The others fall into place do what needs to be done. I can’t wait to see how Hiddleston handles the full three-play character arc, and I definitely can’t wait for the depression that will surely follow Falstaff’s final appearance. I’m going to be sullen for the rest of that day.