One of the main objectives to make the Hollow Crown was to make an epic, large scale production of Shakespeare for TV with on location filming and authentic sets like in quality film/cinema. In addition to making Hollow Crown a high quality production, the BBC wanted it to be accessible to mainstream audiences. Some Shakespeare lovers had a problem with that, while others felt that this goal was very well realized for the small screen with all three plays. Some of this was achieved with the language not being too "Shakespearean" along with cutting down the plays for time and for the large sweeping battle and landscape scenes. So it really depends on what standard you're measuring each play by. Some people responded more to the traditionalist style of Richard II, while others found Henry IV and V more accessible and engaging.
Also of note, Richard II was the first play filmed and had a full six weeks of rehearsing and running through the entire play before they even started filming. Then the BBC moved up the air dates for the whole series so it would be shown during the spring/summer right around (not necessarily during) the Olympics and 2012 Jubilee celebrations. This shortened the rehearsal time of Henry V to two weeks before filming which is one of the reasons I think it feels a little too truncated. Henry IV plays rehearsal time was also cut short cause filming was then on very tight schedule especially for the location battle scenes with horses and real snow.
For me, so far, the most amazing and extraordinary and defining Falstaff is Roger Allam in the Globe Theatre's production of Henry IV. It's on DVD, and I passionately urge every fan of Shakespeare to grab a copy. The cast is uniformly excellent -- and the curtain calls alone are worth the price of admission - but Allam is ... sublime. He does not put a foot wrong. His comic timing is exquisite and his dramatic chops are mighty.
As a whole, I really enjoyed the series. We have such a talented group of Shakespearean actors working right now and it would be a crime to waste them. More people should know Ben Whishaw because of Richard II than for a few minutes in Skyfall.
I wonder if more of effort should have been made to tie them all together. There was such a shift between Richard and the Henrys, they never felt like a cohesive whole. And you could argue that the emphasis on visual and symbolism works best for the former and the emphasis on gritty reality works best for the latter. But it's still the production taking one approach to Richard II and a completely different one to the Henrys rather than one approach to The Hollow Crown.
The BBC could, perhaps, produce another, albeit far looser, series of the four Roman plays: Titus, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra. Bring in some US actors such as John Malkovich for example. They could call it the Hollow Laurels.
I liked Hiddleston's performance well enough, but never entirely bought him as the tough soldier-king. The end reveal of John Hurt actually worked for me - right up until they followed his lyrical final words with a caption explaining that HENRY DIED OF DYSENTERY. HE WAS THIRTY-FIVE YEARS OLD IT WAS SAD. Yeah, thanks caption.
My favourite moment of Branagh's Henry V has to be Brian Blessed clunking into the French court like an armoured battleship and laying down the law. He's just perfectly cast to be a walking threat - an actor best known for his bellowing, dialing it right down to a tone of quiet contempt.
Maybe I'm being overly critical (okay, I am), but this installment was particularly underwhelming, especially considering how strong the start to the series was. For instance, some of the battle scenes looked like they came from a second-rate action film, which, instead of contrasting the subdued sequences involving Hiddleston, disrupted the atmosphere and style of the show as a whole. What's worse, the emotional moments fell flat, mostly. The beginning shots don't feel justified, and when we see them again, the transition is rather awkward. Catharsis averted, I guess.
Regarding Hiddleston's performance (and Branagh's films, for that matter), I don’t think he seems right for the part due to his very nature. The effort is evident, and I salute him for it, but his performance doesn't suit the play. In this one he just seems like someone who got promoted because his dad owned the company. Granted, that's what happened, but when you're watching Henry V and thinking about Dubya, it's never a good thing. After having watched The Hollow Crown, it dawned on me how well (most of) Branagh's movies hold up. They are kind the standard now... at least for me.
I'm not saying they are the most accurate. The Hollow Crown shows are, from a Bardophile standpoint, far more accurate. But they frankly seem flat to me... especially Henry V. And I now find it hard to look at previous versions from even Olivier.
I think Branagh pretty much knocked it out of the park. His speeches and his choice of cuts are the essence of the play. It's a crowd pleaser; sort of a 'Green Berets' from 1600. Branagh’s version gets it. It doesn't try to be more than that. If it's not always 'faithful' to the text, it has the rare quality that it actually has a shot of appealing to non-Shakespeare types without some stupid gimmicks (rap music, resetting in the 20th century or some other such drivel).
Anyway, the final episode notwithstanding, the series is good, and like others, I can't help but hope BBC doesn't stop here.
Setting a work up to fail and designing a work to be inaccessible on the level of language are very different things. The inaccessibility of the language is part of the point--and the success--of the play.
I feel like the Crispin's Day speech in the Hollow Crown version is fine in isolation. It's a different take on what is traditionally a huge, rousing speech. It manages to make what should be an epic moment seem small and inconsequential.
However, in context it didn't feel like an artistic choice at all, but a budgetary one. It underscores the fact that the production only had a couple dozen extras with which to stage a major battle. Had there been a moment or two of cinematic grandeur before that speech, something to sell the gathering of armies (even so outnumbered as the English were), then it would have really been an interesting choice for Henry to talk to his officers and friends as opposed to the troops. As it stands, it just reminds the viewer that the budget is kind of small. You can do this kind of thing on stage, and people will accept that one doesn't have armies of extras (in a way, the audience stands in for the soldiers), but when filmed, you need to find a way to show scale in order to sell it and then to show a contrast with a small gathering of officers.
Of all the Hollow Crown, only Richard II seemed to have transcended its fiduciary limits.
Branagh's Henry is pretty much perfect and hits precisely the right notes: you can see the arrogant little shit that Hal must have been and why precisely those characteristics turn out to be perfect for a war leader. Whether they're Branagh's own characteristics or not, it's the smugness and the arrogance that binds the two sides of the character together, precisely the balance Hiddleston failed at.
I suspect that a lot of the hate directed at Branagh has to do with the man rather than the director/performer. For being the "cocky little shit" who dared to start his career by filming one of Olivier's self-directed Shakespeares, thus setting himself up in contention with the old man, declaring himself the Next Big Thing. (Never mind that the movie is damned near perfect, and that Branagh's performance as Henry is exactly the combination of humility, swaggering, terror and self-canonization that it needs to be, and that the supporting cast is Ian Holm, Brian Blessed, Robert Stephens, Paul Scofield, Judi Dench, Emma Thompson, Derek Jacobi--the list goes on forever, and they're all terrific. Also, I defy anyone to watch Branagh ordering and watching Bardolph's hanging and not weep.) And then later Branagh doubled-down on the self-importance, making movies that became more and more horribly self-indulgent, losing the "let's put on a show" story-telling that made his early work so engaging. Basically, you can chart his decline from his decision to cast Keanu Reeves in Much Ado About Nothing. From there it's a straight line down to LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST and Alicia Silverstone and just...ugh. So there's also a lot of hate for Branagh because of the director/performer he became. But Henry V caught him right at that "Welles-Directs-Citizen-Kane" sweet spot of "knows nothing about what not to do" and "has enough youthful arrogance to try." Result: one of the best non-Kurosawa-directed Shakespeare's on-film.
I wouldn't have disliked seeing Rickman play Richard II, but I don't actively want to, no (now more than ever for obvious reasons). I pretty much worship that play and there are quite a few actors I'd like to see in that role before him.
My true dream for Richard II would be for Takeshi Kitano to follow Kurosawa's lead and make a film of it. I feel the play wants the audience to make an abrupt change from enjoying Richard's villainy to being horrified by it when he kills the princes and I think Kitano's touch is what's needed to manage that.
Oh, and they did the Roman play thing back in the early Sixties, just like they did both Henriads as one long story arc. I don't think any of them survived, though. I only learned they existed through a biography of Peter Cushing. He played Cassius and you must admit he looked the part. The Henriad one is available on DVD as Shakespeare's An Age of Kings, and features Sean Connery as Hotspur. I bought it a few months back but only watched the second Henriad so far.
But I digress as usual when I’m writing about one of my favourite topics. Coming back to the Hollow Crown, Henry V's wooing scene of the French princess has always been really awkward to stage considering how it was written. I like how the previous scene with the French nobility was done in the large space symbolizing the large geographic areas represented by the characters in the scene, and also the psychological distances. The wooing scene was like a speed bump, maybe they could have cast some bombshell French actress to play that role since it was love at first sight for Henry.
Regarding the Duke of York, I've never had any trouble with casting extra-racial characters in plays written by dead white guys. However, this particular actor seemed to radiate a mismatched mood compared with the others characters on the screen. I thought he seemed much more upbeat than the other actors. He didn't act with enough climate induced gloom and a fatalistic outlook that comes with a brief lifespan from living in that period.
I liked how they began this last play with Henry V lying in state. It was a good job at hammering home the passage from Richard II: "Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings..."
Considering that I thought the decision to portray Falstaff as a completely repellent and pathetic loser was a disastrous mistake, I'd say this production was a step up from the Henry IV - though was still not very good.
IMO the director was put in the position of the English against the French, instead of a small army taking on a big one, it was someone with a small budget trying to take on a huge canvas of vast battles (being that these films were done 'realistically' instead of theatrically).
But unlike Henry V - the director lost. It seems God was not on her side.
All these 'intimate' speeches (St Crispin's Day, etc.) were clearly done that way for lack of a budget to show huge armies. It all just struck me as pretty lame. Even as a definite non-Laurence Olivier fan I thought even he did better by those speeches.
I saw the Branagh film last year once more and I remember liking it well enough. I seem to remember he was able to get across the reason that the English won - that they came equipped with a brand new tool of war (the Long Bow in the hands of commoners well-trained in their use) and that it had rained the night before which caused heavily armored French Knights to get stuck in the mud and therefore sitting ducks for the archers. I first saw it when it was in the theater (*creaks with agedness*) and knew nothing about him and it nearly made me take up arms and run off to war. It is rousing and exciting and brash in a good way and fully earns its reputation (though this is a later-acquired rep as I remember being completely baffled by how the old-schoolers said Olivier's Henry V was better when from my perspective even as someone who loved Shakespeare, it was very dull compared to Branagh's).
I thought Branagh's interpretation of the role was as a bit of an uncultured young man of action stifled by the restrictions of Court life coming into his element (the camaraderie and physicality of war) and embracing it. This worked really well in the way the final scene with Katherine played as the lines about not being suited for wooing are completely believable from Branagh's Henry whereas Hiddleston's Henry saying the same thing rings false -- as if he's pretending to be clumsy to put her at ease and to cover the language barrier more gracefully. Hiddleston's Henry V is certainly not someone who seems ill-at-ease with Court manners.
In any case, I thought this whole thing was a pretty bland affair. I do think Hiddleston was acceptably cast albeit misguidedly directed in the Henry IV films but did not at all have the aspect of a fearsome warrior as the part of Henry V seems to call for.
Coming bacj to "The Hollow Crown", While I did find it kind of moving that the Chorus turned out to be the Boy - I missed the figure being present in the proceedings. It really is the kind of thing best done in theater. It did sort of strike me though that given putting these plays under one heading of "The Hollow Crown" it would have been interesting to have Ben Whitshaw play the Chorus (though probably not in the aspect of Richard II).
I really enjoy the tricks that directors needed to use before CGI made it possible to put every single orc onscreen in glorious HD. As it stands with this TV film, the English really DID win for no apparent reason other than (again) God was on their side. I don't know that any filmed version of Agincourt wouldn't leave the audience scratching their heads when the final tally is revealed. "I just watched 20 minutes of people beating on each other with swords and massive clubs, and only 25 English were killed? Who were all those dead extras supposed to be? Were the French just attacking each other the whole time?" Shakespeare's choice of numbers might be inspirational on stage, but after watching a bloody battle scene they feel kind of goofy.