August 28, 2007

Gratuitous Llama Netflix Movie Review


Henry IV, Part 1 (1979)

I confess that I've never actually seen a stage production of this particular history of Shakespeare's, nor have I ever read it all the way through. (I took an awful lot of Shakespeare in school, but the histories usually got tossed out of the way in favor of the tragedies and the darker comedies.) Nonetheless, I would heartily recommend this Beeb production to anybody at all interested in the Bard's historickal works.

John Finch plays Henry Bolingbroke, whose usurpation of Richard II (as those who have read that play of Shakespeare's will recall) was, shall we say, perhaps politically necessary but also of extremely dubious legality. As Henry IV, he is continually haunted by the memory, mortified that his nobles will turn on him in the same way, perhaps by way of Divine retribution. To this end, Finch is almost always rubbing his hands a la Lady Macbeth, and carries himself with a kind of haggard paranoia, sparked in no little part by his son, Prince Hal.

Hal is played here by David Gwillim (who also plays him in the Beeb series production of Henry V). Frankly, he never quite pulls off the playboy, imho, but his dawning understanding of his role as heir and future king is very nicely done. There is one scene in which old Henry dresses down Hal in no uncertain terms, pointing out that Hal's brand of public debauchery was exactly the sort of behavior that brought down Richard and did Hal really want somebody gunning for his father and himself the same way Bolingbroke had gunned for Richard? At the end of the scene, Hal is practically in tears.

Then there is Henry Percy, better known as Hotspur, played by Tim Pigott-Smith. Hotspur is, in fact, that young gun about whom Henry is so very worried, although ironically, he's also the nephew that Henry wishes were his own son. Feeling snubbed, ignored and enraged by Hal's behavior, Hotspur goes off to plot rebellion with allies in Scotland and Wales. He is, as his name implies, hot-headed, impatient and prone to shoot first and ask questions later, and Pigott-Smith (whose face you'd immediately recognize if you were at all into Brit movies in the 70's and 80's) plays him absolutely brilliantly, with a restless energy that sometimes so overwhelms him that he can't even think straight. The climactic scene at the Battle of Shrewsbury, where Hal and Hotspur face off against each other, is truly exciting and also puts on full display all the virtues and vices of this character who, as Shakespeare portrays him, may be a rebel but is certainly no villain.

This play is also our introduction to Sir John Falstaff (another brilliant performance by Anthony Quayle) and his band of rogues, minor villains and layabouts. There's no "bottom up" revisionism here, no "honest heart of the little guy" as Brannagh served up in his Henry V: Falstaff is a degenerate - an extremely amusing and roguish one, but in the end a thief, a coward, a liar and NBG to man or beast, and his rag-tag band of followers are no better. Indeed, one of the most powerful moments in the play occurs when Hal, playfully taking on the role of his own father, sits in mock judgement on his own friendship with Falstaff. The change from bawdy pot-house mockery to extremely cold and serious honesty is positively chilling. Perhaps Falstaff can never mend his ways (and as an audience, would we really want him to?), but it is also abundently clear that Hal will absolutely have to abandon him.

I mentioned above that in this series of Beeb presentations David Gwillim plays Hal not just in Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2, but also in Henry V as well. It's probably something of a cliche, but Henry V can be best thought of as Henry IV, Part 3. Many of the themes of the first two plays are carried over and, indeed, one can argue that a good bit of what happens in Henry V cannot be understood without a knowledge of the immediately-proceeding history. (For instance, when Hal drops to his knees just before the Battle of Agincourt and cries out, "Not today, Oh God, not today!" what is his primary worry? It goes back to Bolingbroke's usurpation of Richard - Hal is suddenly seized by the fear that God will use this battle against the French as the moment for retribution against Hal for his father's acts.) One actor playing Hal through all three of these plays really has a tremendous advantage in being able to develop his character in all its aspects through such a long continuity, and the audience of course benefits as well.

I haven't had a chance to watch Henry IV, Part 2 yet, but if Part 1 is any indication, it should be excellent as well. I'll let you know about the story of Henry IV's declining health, Hal's continual rise to royal bearing and the winding up of his friendship with Falstaff and his set after I do. In the meantime, I couldn't resist plugging this first installment.

Robbo's Recommendation: Five Yip! out of five.

Posted by Robert at August 28, 2007 09:56 AM | TrackBack

I have to admit that I haven't spent a lot of time on the Henry plays myself (I did however study both Richards and love them dearly.) I'll have to give this a look - I'm generally impressed with BBC productions, so that's already a good recommendation and with 5 yips, well, how can a girl go wrong? :)

Posted by: beth at August 28, 2007 10:07 AM

Beware the slightly ridiculous "Welsh" llullaby, however, sung by Mortimer's wife while he and Hotspur are waiting around for the rebels' contract to be finalized. It's a bit tedious.

The two Richards make an interesting contrast. It's been years since I read Richard II, but my recollection is that he wasn't bad, just soft. And in the end, the audience can sympathize with him and deplore his murder by Bolingbroke, even while understanding the politics behind it. Richard III, on the other hand, is a villain right through. We secretly admire him on Bosworth Field, I think, because he goes down with his flag nailed to the mast (as it were), but we never forget that he was genuinely bad.

(Stand by for the Maximum Leader to start ranting about how Shakespeare libelled Richard III.)

Posted by: Robbo the LB at August 28, 2007 10:44 AM

I actually read (well, listened to as an audiobook) a very interesting story about the libel of Richard III...hey cool, amazing what a google of "Richard III detective hospital" will get's called The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey and while I can't possibly pretend that I know enough about that era of history (most of what I know I learned from Shakespeare) it was an interesting story with a unique (to me) perspective that seemed pretty well researched. So perhaps there's some merit there.

On the other hand, I agree that II does come across more as a victim of circumstance and III as a definitive villian. And for the record I'll simply state that if you get a chance to see Sir Ian McKellen's miserable adaptation of Richard III set in 1930's England, save yourself the heartburn and just beat yourself on the head with a dictionary for a few hours.

Posted by: beth at August 28, 2007 01:21 PM


Posted by: Robbo the LB at August 28, 2007 02:06 PM