Thea Sharrock offers a radical reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s “Henry V” with a great lead performance from Tom Hiddleston. Listen to us discuss Sharrock’s “Henry V” on episode 2 of the 21st Folio podcast.
Near the beginning of Shakespeare’s “Henry V”, King Henry responds to an attack on his youthful revelry by saying, “And we understand him well,/ How he comes o’er us with our wilder days,/ Not measuring what use we made of them”. In Thea Sharrock’s fantastic film of the play, the final episode of the “Hollow Crown” series, these words take on extra weight and meaning: we’ve watched Hal (Tom Hiddleston) learn from his time at the Boar’s Head, and even now we see how he’s applying that knowledge.
When Harry plays on the word “mock” to turn his acknowledgment of the Dauphin’s insulting gift of tennis balls into a threat to invade France and make him regret it, we see the influence of Falstaff, the expert at turning words on their head. But he responds with the thoughtful and collected calm of his late father. If “Henry IV Part 1” was about Hal seeing different styles of leadership modeled and cherry-picking the best qualities to mimic, we see in “Henry V” how successfully he does this.
Tom Hiddleston gives such a nuanced, cerebral performance as Henry V – the best of his film career – which builds so perfectly on his work in the “Henry IV” films that it’s hard to believe he shot this one first. When we first see Hal as the new king in “Henry V”, he’s riding vigorously, alone on his grounds. Dressed in his, by now, trademark red leather jacket with a red cloak, he’s got such youthful spirit. His hair may have inexplicably turned from blonde to red overnight, and he’s grown a small beard, but this is the able-bodied Prince we recognize. Returning to the palace, he plops on the crown before entering court, and that’s when we notice just how much his demeanour has changed since “Henry IV”: his gait is faster and more purposeful; he listens with intense focus; and he speaks with a rougher, throatier voice. He’s commanding, and it helps that Sharrock largely shoots him from below.
There is much to be gained from the fact that Sharrock’s “Henry V” uses the same cast and sets as Eyre’s “Henry IV” films. Now that we’ve seen the throne and hollow crown pass between three kings, they become more symbolic since we’re more aware of the transience of the job. Everything Henry does is now steeped in the mythology of Hal: when he claims to covet honour in his St Crispin’s Day speech, we know this is largely rhetoric because we remember when he gave up the honour of being recognized for killing Hotspur to help Falstaff. And whenever Falstaff’s boy appears onscreen with Henry, we’re reminded of the greater intimacy they once shared.
The crew at the Boar’s Head are familiar old friends, so the play makes more structural sense when we cut to Falstaff’s death: we have an emotional stake in this story, and it serves as more than just comic relief. We can also, for once, distinguish between the soldiers in Falstaff’s group — Bardolph’s red face, Pistol’s quick temper, and the new addition of Corporal Nym — as well as Henry’s advisors who were his father’s advisors, too. How the people around Henry react to him and the situations actually matter because we understand who each of them are.
Although Sharrock’s “Henry V” works as a standalone film, which can hold its own against Kenneth Branagh’s, it is completely consistent with the Hal we’ve watched grow. The film gives Henry time to grow into his skin as King, just as Branagh did, rather than having him arrive a fully formed leader at the start, as is often the temptation of standalone productions like The Globe Theatre’s 2011 production or at Shakespeare Santa Cruz this summer. Hiddleston’s Henry V is a man who wants desperately to connect with everyone in his charge; this is the man who could just as easily befriend a drawer as a noble, and we remember how much he enjoyed his companionship with Poins and Falstaff.
He gives the St Crispin’s Day and “Once more unto the breach” speeches to a small group, each line directed at a specific person, rather than spoken as grandiose words from on high. When he refers to “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”, he is speaking only to his closest advisors, like Westmoreland (James Laurenson), York (Paterson Joseph), and Exeter (Anton Lesser). The speeches are still rousing calls-to-arms, but they are more personal, which also makes them hit close to home.
This great rhetoric is also there to mask Henry’s uncertainty and insecurity. When he delivers the Harfleur speech, threatening to rape and pillage the town if they don’t yield, the hyperbole seems part of Henry’s act as King: he’s trying to convince himself, as much as he is the French, of his power. It’s reminiscent of when Hal tried to encourage the sheriff to leave the tavern in “Henry IV Part 1”, first playfully, and when that failed, by putting on the air of command.
Only when he roams the army camp in disguise is he able to show his fears and talk candidly. When Henry talks to Pistol (Paul Ritter) who tells him what he thinks of the King, not knowing who he’s speaking to, it’s the first time Henry has had a truly honest interaction with anyone from the Boar’s Head. When the soldier Williams warns that “But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath/ a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and/ arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join/ together at the latter day and cry all ‘We died at/ such a place”, the men’s fear weigh on him as does the responsibility of leadership. Because Henry has no equal in the army, his worries can only be contemplated in solitude.
It’s this melancholy loneliness that ultimately makes his courtship with Princess Katherine (Mélanie Thiérry) moving, and Sharrock’s rendition is the only one I’ve ever seen where this scene feels integral to the story rather than a clumsy add-on. After watching Henry suffer loneliness but maintain a courageous, assured exterior throughout the film, it’s disarming to see the return of the youthful glint in his eye and the softer, sweeter voice which characterized the eager-to-please Hal. In Kate, he’s finally found his match, an equal for whom he need not perform.
Thea Sharrock’s “Henry V” is a terrific Shakespearean production, not just because of the stellar acting and dazzling visuals, but because Sharrock finds a way to make sense of and unify all the scenes in the play, which can sometimes seem to have contradictory messages. This is in part because she refuses to simplify the play to be either pro-war, like Olivier’s film, or anti-war, like Branagh’s. Instead, she brings out the nuances of Shakespeare’s text, which is a complex exploration of the many real advantages and disadvantages of war. “Henry V” is the perfect conclusion to a remarkable series.
Listen to us discuss Sharrock’s “Henry V” on episode 2 of the 21st Folio podcast.
The Hollow Crown is available to purchase or rent from iTunes and Amazon Instant Video, as well as on DVD and Blu Ray.