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The Hollow Crown: Shakespeare in Disguise?


The Hollow Crown is a story of family, politics and power. The film tells the tale of the rise and fall of three Kings and how their destiny shaped our history. Richard II is a self-indulgent, vain man who rules with little regard for his people’s welfare. Richard II is overthrown by his cousin Bolingbroke who ascends the throne as Henry IV. Henry IV’s reign is scarred by his own guilt over Richard’s death, civil war, and the fear that his son Hal is a total deadbeat. When Hal comes to the throne as Henry V he is left to bury the ghosts of his father’s past while dealing with his own demons.
 The BBC The Hollow Crown adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V concentrates too much on Henry as king and excludes some of the comical moments to maintain focus on the seriousness of war. The production has a high profile cast and wonderful cinematography with beautiful landscapes, however the dedication to Shakespeare is lacking. Henry V is a history play and attention must be on the war.  Still we need to remember what makes Shakespeare so great; he infuses comedy into everything from love to war.  That comedy is what allows us to relax so we are unprepared for the shock Shakespeare has in store for us. 
The final series of the B.B.C’s Hollow Crown season begins at the end showing Henry V with the death of its protagonist. Henry is dead with his loved ones around him as Chorus transports the audience back in time presenting the newly crowned king. Despite his youth Henry has clearly shed his irresponsible ways and matured to cope with his new responsibilities. This adaptation does not focus just on the brave heroics of the king, but rather the demands and necessity of a good leader and war. Unfortunately this message is not delivered well. Hollow Crown Henry V was a disappointment which did not nearly reach the standard of its predecessors. There is not much competition for filmed Richard IIs or Henry IVs, but to follow in the footsteps of not only Laurence Olivier, but also Kenneth Branagh's 1989 film is daunting task.
 It was not the play that was the problem- it has political intrigue, romance, heroism, battle scenes, acts of courage and emotional poignancy to make a first rate Drama, but very little comic relief.  There have been wonderful adaptations of it in the past, most notably Kenneth Branagh's 1989 version. However, the casting, quality of acting and editing of the BBC The Hollow Crown version created a disjointed and rather dry adaptation. Many of the characters seemed to have lacked depth, and simply delivered their lines without sounding like their heart was really in it. There was little feeling or emotion in this version as there is in Branagh's.  A deeper seriousness is felt in the three preceding plays of The Hollow Crown. Although a real disappointment was Falstaff who for the most part simply seemed not funny.  He sounded like an unhinged old man talking to himself when he delivered the soliloquies that were meant to give insights into his character. His mumbled speech lacked definition to give his message the boisterous and comical delivery that Shakespeare intended. Simon Beale as Falstaff was nowhere near as entertaining as Shakespeare portrayed him. Even the famous Crispin's Day speech (`We Few we happy few')  did not feel at all moving or inspiring, and the humorous scenes and interludes failed to deliver any comic relief. The famous speeches are not delivered to the masses Henry goes to France, he is addressing only a few individuals. While this creates sincerity when presenting a king that is not governed by his passions or prone to great shows of theatrics. Instead, Henry remains largely composed throughout the play. Henry does not react to the Dauphin’s tennis ball taunt with rage, but responds in a soft voice, suggesting a king who is in control of his emotions. In contrast, Dauphin’s anger when faced with the English messenger signals his own immaturity. The brutalities of war are shown but glorification or patriotism is downplayed heavily. The adaptation concentrates sharply on Henry as a king avoiding attention on the lower characters and plots not essential to the play. The comic moments are subdued adding to the seriousness and reality of war. The Welsh captain Fluellen taking great pride in the discipline of the army is not mocked he is admired. Henry does not take the opportunity to play a harmless trick after the victory either. Instead he takes it upon himself to present the glove of the solider he quarreled with the previous night.  Despite the scenes of slaughtered bodies strewn across muddy fields once the battle has ended, Henry( although thankful) does not take any glory from the victory. The action moves on swiftly to Henry wooing Katherine in search of a resolution to prolong the peace. While the cruel murder of Falstaff’s boy does not occur he does witness murder up close symbolizing the loss of innocence that war incites. This epitomizes the message of kingship at the heart of this adaptation Henry V’s story is not of the underdog’s victory. It is a journey from rebellious youth to responsible maturity.
The filmmakers cut out a number of scenes and passages: including the Southampton Plot when three nobles were discovered to have planned to kill King Henry before he left for France. This scene was arguably important in its depiction of Henry's character development as it shows he was capable of making tough and even painful decisions to protect his kingdom and the harsh reality for kings as well as showing that there was opposition to him. Henry's two brothers Humphrey Duke of Gloucester and John Duke of Bedford (formerly John of Lancaster in Henry IV) are absent from this version for unknown reasons. Though Bedford's absence can be historically justified because he was not at Agincourt, his brother Gloucester was.
Despite his sibling's absence Henry is still heard to say 'we are in God's hand brother' after treating with the French herald, a line originally delivered in response to Gloucester's stating he hoped that the French would not come upon the English too soon, when his brother is not even there. Instead the Duke of York, a minor character with only a few lines in the original play replaces them in a prominent role, constantly appearing as something like the King's 'right hand man'  and sometimes seemingly being given other characters' lines or roles, undoubtedly to stress the importance of the role of King.  It was the King's uncle the Duke of Exeter that Pistol asked Llewellyn to intercede with to stop Bardolph being hanged in the original play and for some reason in this version York is the one who is responsible for this.  Finally events surrounding the killing of the prisoners at Agincourt (which was cut out of Branagh's version) did not seem to be well portrayed.  It is shown that Henry feared the French would regroup and make a fresh attack so then Henry gives the order to kill the prisoners, but all we see are three French knights riding by not enough to pose a threat. The whole scene is doubtful especially when Henry refers to the French knights still riding over the field when only he and a few English soldiers are visible.
The beginning and final scene of The Hollow Crown  featuring Henry's funeral seemed to  help to round off  the story and give the audience a sense of finality as well as letting them know what happened to Henry. Chorus' closing speech recounting the loss of France and demise of the Lancastrian dynasty gave the ending a poignantly tragic note but not enough make up for the deficiencies of the rest of the play. You search in vain for the fun and fury through a play spoken in Franglais (French and English words) and expect boisterous good humor as the tale of Hal-turned-Harry's rise to king only to be strewn along a king/war focused adaptation that omits the humor and lacks the character delivery of comic relief so valuable to Shakespeare’s plays.

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