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I finally managed to watch Henry IV, part I. And I have mixed feelings about the second installment of the BBC series The Hollow Crown. Maybe because Henry IV did not have the same visual poetry as Richard II or because the protagonist was not as appealing.

Tom Hiddleson as the charming prince Hal

Don’t get me wrong, I love Tom Hiddleson as much as the next Tumblr obsessed girl, but his Hal was too easy to like. Everything from his cute boyish smile to his leather jerkin clad body to his effortless charm just swept you away. He was just too likable to be a compelling character.  The morally ambigious Richard was more interesting to watch. Though it did feel that up until Hal got to the battlefield, he was not really enjoying himself. Whenever I saw him in the dingy little tavern or playing pranks on his bawdy friends, it all seemed rather forced. At times he almost looked bored. But the man on the battlefield was very different from the slightly detached young man in the taverns. This was a stern, brave Hal, ready to lead and command. There was also a shadow of sadness in him.  His victory over Hotspur was not all glory; we see Hal realize that war is an ugly, painful and bloody business.

Jeremy Irons is great as the perpetually disappointed King Henry IV

Jeremy Irons was, well, Jeremy Irons. Superb as usual. Though I found it difficult to believe that Rory Kinnear’s  Henry Bolingbroke grew up to be Jeremy Irons’ Henry IV, he gave a great performance of an aging king weighed down by his office and the knowledge of how he came to be there. This was a king whose body was giving out, but whose spirit was still strong.

They don’t call him ‘Hotspur’ for nothing

Henry Percy aka Hotspur, played by Joe Armstrong, I absolutely loved. He was great fun with his impetuous hotheaded speeches. I relished every scene he was in, especially those with Michelle Dockery as Kate, Lady Percy. The couple was constantly bickering and making out. Hotspur was flinging insults and Lady Percy was rolling her eyes (Ah, Michelle, no one rolls their eyes quite like you. And you have Downton Abbey to prove it). Fun fact: Hotspur’s father, Earl of Northumberland, is played by Armstrong’s real-life father, Alun Armstrong.

Falstaff (Simon Russell Beale) is a mix of hilarious, repulsive  and touching  

And finally, we get to Falstaff played by Simon Russell Beale. This particular character seems to be pretty polarizing. I saw a lot of comments that could be summed up as “Agh, he was horrible. That’s not how I imagine Falstaff.” Which is fair enough, but, never seeing this play before, I thought this was an interesting interpretation of the character. He was rowdy and uncouth and full of humor, but he was also tragic and pathetic. He clung to Hal with so much desperation that we could see how much he wanted his love. Beale’s Falstaff was dirty and unpleasant. He was not the merry mentor to an adolescent boy that looks up to him. It seems that what drew Hal to Falstaff was the opportunity to have a few laughs at his expense, but also Falstaff’s honest roguery. As King, Hal would have to deal with falsehood and deception all the time, and Falstaff’s lies are so over the top and transparent that for the future king they may seem cathartic.

Hal and Flastaff both foresee that their friendship and love will not last

Towards the middle of the film, Falstaff and Hal put on a mock play where Falstaff plays Hal and Hal plays his father. The scene goes from pageantry to raw emotion when the poor old man begs Hal, still in the role of Henry IV, not  to banish Falstaff. It is such an ardent plea for Hal’s love that you begin to understand why Hal keeps this company. It is very doubtful that he could ever find anyone so thoroughly and honestly attached to him. And he looks at Falstaff with mingled love and sadness, because he knows that this pure love could never last. One is a king and the other is a rogue. They have no future together.  Maybe in Falstaff’s pure love Hal finds that emotion that he could never get from his father.

Parent- child relationships is never been easy. Not even in medieval England

I did like how this installment played up the personal relationships rather than any metaphysical musings on the nature of kingship. It was very much a coming-of-age story that focused on a father and a son told in the bleak, medieval surroundings with blood, gore and dirt in abundance.  While I found Hal’s tavern life unconvincing, his relationship with his father, his desire to prove himself, his anger at his enemy and his pain at seeing his enemy vanquished, showed me a compelling Hal. A Hal I look forward to seeing in the next two episodes of the series. Can’t wait for Henry IV, Part II.

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I just finished watching the first film, Richard II, in The Hollow Crown series. And it was magnificent! Directed by Rupert Goold with Ben Whishaw as Richard II and Patrick Stewart, Rory Kinnear, David Morrissey and David Suchet.

The visual style was mesmerizing to the point of being hypnotic. They took full advantage of film as a medium. The lavish beauty of some scenes and deep darkness of others was made possible by superb cinematography.

But the best part of the film is the acting. Ben Whishaw plays Richard II as a man out of his depth. The king is a delicate man, fretful and peevish, with graceful movements and a high voice. He struggles to maintain the appearance of authority, but it’s quite clear that no one really listens to him. And no wonder. He’s surrounded by the likes of the charismatic John of Gaunt (Patrick Stewart) and the tough, masculine Henry Bolingbroke (Rory Kinnear). From the beginning it is clear that he cannot control these men, and when he tries, he bring about his own downfall.

Patrick Stewart looking gaunt as John of Gaunt

I don’t think I spoil anything by saying that in trying to resolve a dispute between Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray, King Richard ends up banishing them both, setting in motion a chain of events that would bring Bolingbroke back from banishment, deposit Richard and take his crown.

Rory Kinnear as the reluctant rebel Henry Bolingbroke

Rory Kinnear is a strong, loyal and passionate Henry Bolingbroke. He is dutiful subject to the king and a loving son to his father. It feels like he becomes a rebel despite himself. He comes back to claim his land after exile and realizes that he can be king. Of course, he has to live with the consequences of his actions – deposition of the rightful, if inadequate, king. His performance is subtle and understated, and when the script doesn’t give him lines, he still manages to carry the emotion.

Clémence Poésy as Queen Isabella

The rest of the cast is equally impressive. Patrick Stewart makes a great  John of Gaunt, going from a happy lord and father to a sick and angry old man. David Suchet plays the Duke of York who switches sides so often that his sense of loyalty overgrows to the point where he is willing to denounce his son for treason to a king who came to power through treason. Two wrongs do make a right, apparently.  Clémence Poésy is Queen Isabella and is given very little to do or say. For most of the movie she is either crying or looking despondent. But I suppose that’s all Shakespeare gave her. Though the last scene between her and the king is very touching.

Watching the scenes with the deposed Richard, as he tries to come to terms with his downfall, is heart-rending. Whishaw’s performance is flawless. His struggle and pain seem very real. And  even though most of us cannot imagine what it would feel like to be a deposed king, we still feel for him. Despite not being very likable, he is still very sympathetic, possibly because of his extreme vulnerability and loneliness.

Richard learns humanity the hard way

There is a lot of religious symbolism in the film. Richard is compared to both Christ (especially when he is taken to the new king’s court in white robes riding on a white horse) and to St Sebastian (when he is pierced by arrows). This is surprising, since Richard is no saint.  He is set up to be selfish, petulant and capricious. I suppose it could be a metaphor for his gaining humanity through suffering. He dies a better man than he ever was as a king.

If you haven’t seen The Hollow Crown: Richard II yet, go and do so now. The film is visually beautiful, the acting is superb and the language flows like a symphony of words.

The next installment, Henry IV part 1, comes out on Saturday, July 7th.

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