Royal plots part 1: Q, Picard, Scar and Loki do Shakespeare is here.
The Hollow Crown continues with Henry IV parts 1 and 2, but we’re in the mood to compare the new TV adaptation of Henry V with the movie by Kenneth Branagh.
Henry V is a glorious piece of pro-war English propaganda. The English led by their young king Henry V invaded France to claim land that is “rightfully theirs”, i.e. the whole country. On a narrow field called Agincourt the exhausted and ailing English, outnumbered six to one, won a decisive victory. The heavily-armored French cavalry were confident against the lowly English archers. But English arrows struck the horses of the French, and when the French went down in the thick mud they couldn’t get up. The French lost 10,000 men, the English 29 (modern estimates say 112).
We can’t help but love the young king—he’s brave, humble, modest; he makes great speeches; he forbids looting and maltreating the natives. But Shakespeare’s view of war is closer to our century’s than his. He reveals the politics and opportunism under the grand rhetoric. He’s suspicious of this newly-pious king who rejected his best friend Falstaff and “killed his heart”. This Henry who talks about the “happy few”, the “band of brothers”, had another friend hanged. In violation of the rules of chivalry he ordered the French prisoners killed. These decisions are defensible—they are the acts of a good leader. The more kingly Henry, the less human.
And still we love him. We would kill or die for Henry V. Shakespeare shows us the essence of leadership: charisma, bullshit, the capacity to be cruel and right.
Kenneth Branagh adapted, directed, produced and starred in the film of Henry V in 1989; Tom Hiddleston, who calls Branagh his mentor (they co-starred onstage and in TV’s Wallander, and it was Branagh who gave him the part of Loki in Thor), takes on the role in this episode of The Hollow Crown. The differences between the two versions are summed up by the actors’ interpretations of the most famous speech in the play.
Of the two it’s Hiddleston who looks the part, but when Branagh speaks we forget his resemblance to a potato. Branagh’s performance is stagier, more jamon, but appropriate to the occasion. If you’re asking men to die for you, you have to wring every drop of emotion out of the words. His delivery with its extended syllables, its rising and falling notes, sounds like music. Listen to this rendition a few times and it will play in your head (Ignore the redundant swelling music).
Hiddleston’s rendition is thoughtful and strangely ambivalent. It’s cerebral rather than visceral—he sounds like he doesn’t want to go to war so he’s talking himself into doing it. The actor seems to be scaling down his attack. That’s not going to inspire men to leap into battle, especially with those odds. This Henry V directed by Thea Sharrock takes the contemporary view of war: What is it good for? Absolutely nothing! We don’t debate that view, but why did you do Henry V, then? He can’t be ambivalent about war, he invaded France!
The Branagh version also depicts the horror of war, but it acknowledges the rush. There’s this great scene in the movie: Henry has just realized that they’ve won, and while the pedantic Fluellen (Ian Holm) chatters on, he bursts into laughter and tears. That’s a human reaction. Hiddleston’s Henry can’t even be a teeny bit happy at the victory. He sounds almost embarrassed. (Hiddles is more comfortable in Henry IV, though in the roistering scenes he seems out of place. Too polite.)
The acting in the Branagh movie is more affected—Derek Jacobi as the Chorus prances around and humps the floorboards, even Emma Thompson exaggerates ze Franch ahk-sahnt—and the scenes are over-scored. As Pauline Kael pointed out, Henry V makes an entrance like Darth Vader. The clergy who urge Henry on to war do the full Bella Flores kilay acting. But there is a time for jamon—it makes this version more filling.
There’s a long sequence in which Henry carries a dead luggage boy (young Christian Bale) across the muddy corpse-strewn field while a chorus sings Patrick Doyle’s lovely Non Nobis, Domine. We take in the terrible cost of war, but we’re also allowed to be amazed at the outcome of battle. It’s both hokey and wonderful. In The Hollow Crown Henry V is so tasteful, sensitive and politically correct, it feels like a catalogue for fair trade medieval home decor.
* * * * *
Here’s Tom Hiddleston doing both versions. Because he’s Tom Hiddleston and has to do everything.