“Then would I have his Harry, and he mine”
The Hollow Crown continues with Henry IV Part I, directed by Richard Eyre who also does the ensuing Part II (but not Henry V, though the productions are cross-cast). But where Rupert Goold’s Richard II embraced the form to create something more cinematic (although not to everyone’s tastes), this is an altogether more traditional affair and not necessarily the better for it.
What Eyre brings out is the father-son relationships. Tom Hiddleston’s carousing Prince Hal, partnered extremely well by David Dawson’s Poins in what was an excellent performance I thought, is movingly forced towards maturity on the battlefield, as King Henry, Jeremy Irons in impassive form and making the presence of what is admittedly quite a secondary character really stand out, laments the fecklessness of his heir. This is contrasted of course by the gumption of young Hotspur, Joe Armstrong oozing rugged charisma and forming the highlight of the whole thing for me, and in a lovely piece of casting, his real father, Alun Armstrong has been cast as his onscreen father which added poignancy to their moments.
But for all the trumpeting of Simon Russell Beale finally playing the part of Sir John Falstaff, I did not find it a performance I enjoyed. Looking like a down’n’out Father Christmas, for me he lacked much of the essential warmth to his comedy, needed to explain the charismatic hold he has over so many, making the tavern scenes quite surprisingly dull. Russell Beale nailed the baleful looks of recognition of the frailty of his position, especially in relationship to Hal, but too often there was an over-reliance on his usual tics and gestures, which meant he was never really subsumed into the role. Likewise with Julie Walters treading water rather as Mistress Quickly, Eyre did’t exert enough direction over his stars to not let their personae dominate.
Luxury casting spots included John Heffernan as the hapless server Francis, Harry Lloyd as the rebel Mortimer, Dominic Rowan’s Coleville (with distractingly bad hair) and Jolyon Coy’s Blunt, the latter two both tasked simply with passing on a single message. On the one hand, I love this strength in depth in the cast but at the same time, there’s a slight sense of frustration at such talent being so under-utilised. The paucity of good female roles is also underlined by the criminally fleeting appearances of Michelle Dockery and Maxine Peake as Kate Percy and Doll Tearsheet respectively.
One knows one is in trouble when one starts to focus on the tiniest details and as I found my attentions beginning to wander, I became increasingly annoyed by the ‘screen wipe right’ effect that was used, a ridiculously small thing but demonstrative of how little I was engaged by the end. For those that like that sort of thing, the battle scenes might well be impressive but I just didn’t care for them, and wasn’t a fan of the saturated palette used here either.
Ultimately, I was rather underwhelmed by Henry IV Part I. My abiding feeling was of a rather staid traditionalism, too rooted in its theatrical origins and not really embracing the opportunities offered on an artistic level by the change in medium. Irons and Hiddleston are sufficiently excellent to make me want to watch Part II and Dawson and Armstrong (Junior) made it further worthwhile watching this, but it was hard not to feel just a little disappointed by Russell Beale and Walters.