Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 4 hours 1 minute
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Directed by: Richard Eyre
Written by: Richard Eyre
(based on the plays HENRY IV Part 1 and HENRY IV Part 2 by William Shakespeare)
Starring: Jeremy Irons, Tom Hiddleston, Simon Russell Beale, Julie Walters, Alun Armstrong, Joe Armstrong, David Bamber & Niamh Cusack
William Shakespeare is regarded as one of the greatest writers in history for many good reasons. This playwright coined tons of new words, reshaped the English language as we know it, and told timeless tales of tragedy, comedy and love. His histories are usually regarded as his less interesting works, but that didn’t stop BBC from creating a series of TV movies titled THE HOLLOW CROWN. Featuring big names like Jeremy Irons, Tom Hiddleston, and Benedict Cumberbatch, this series has invigorated new takes on centuries-old material. Shakespeare was not without a few stinkers in his career (e.g. ANTHONY AND CLEOPATRA) and HENRY IV Parts 1 and 2 are among those. Even with a talented cast and stand-out production values, HENRY IV is a strictly middle-of-the-road affair due to an unfocused narrative…courtesy of William Shakespeare’s original text.
Decades after dethroning Richard II (seen in the previous HOLLOW CROWN movie), an aging Henry IV (Jeremy Irons) finds himself plagued by a series of problems. Tensions are brewing between Wales and Scotland, all while the noble Percy family plots a rebellion against the king. As if bloody chaos wasn’t enough to upset Henry IV, his son Prince Hal (Tom Hiddleston) has become a drunken belligerent who hangs out in poor taverns amongst the trashier sects of society. Henry IV wishes to bring peace to his country, squash the violent rebellion and prepare his delinquent son for the crown. This is all easier said than done and begins to take a toll on the ailing Henry IV’s health.
The title of Shakespeare’s play is HENRY IV, but the narrative focuses on every character who isn’t the titular ruler. This means that Jeremy Irons’ terrific performance takes a backseat to everyone else…who all happen to be less interesting characters. The only possible exception is Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal (a.k.a. future Henry V), whose transition from delinquent troublemaker to responsible adult feels a tad rushed and unbelievable. Part of this might be attributed to writer/director Richard Eyre, but I’d say that most of it falls onto Shakespeare’s shoulders. This really isn’t one of his better histories or plays in general and it really shows.
Back to less interesting characters. HENRY IV’s potentially complex villain is portrayed in a mostly bland way. Hotspur (Joe Armstrong) not only serves as an antagonist towards Henry IV, but also comes off as would-be rival to Prince Hal. We only know about the latter through one powerful speech early on, but that is damn near forgotten by the time Hal and Hotspur actually encounter each other face-to-face. HENRY IV Part 1 is mainly where all of the rebellion stuff comes into play, as these battles are mentioned only during a few passing scenes in Part 2.
A prominent character in both HENRY IV plays/parts is Falstaff (played by an unrecognizable Simon Russell Beale), who is a pompous oaf and also serves as a bad influence for Prince Hal. This comic relief drunkard is beloved by certain generations of Shakespeare critics, but has rightfully lost a lot of popularity over time. That becomes apparent in this buffoon essentially being Shakespeare’s equivalent of Jar Jar Binks. He’s annoying, aggravating, and got on my nerves during every scene. To make matters even worse, he’s featured in a majority of Parts 1 and 2. Not even the stellar battle sequence is safe from his over-the-top delivery and silly antics. Part 2 sees Falstaff stealing half of the running time in a subplot that’s entirely separated from the rest of the play. It’s safe to say that a majority of HENRY IV’s problems, pacing issues, and dull patches are direct results from Falstaff’s presence.
Even when he phoned it in, Shakespeare always knew how to entrance the ears with his masterful use of the English language. His dialogue is pure poetry and certain scenes stand out as highlights in an otherwise very tiring viewing experience. The fight between Prince Hal and Hotspur is made even more intense by the battle of insults and threats occurring alongside the swords and shields. One conversation in Part 2 between Hiddleston’s Hal and Irons’ Henry IV is the best scene of the entire movie though as it captures what this whole story should have been about from frame one…and what Shakespeare attempted to do, albeit in a half-assed way.
As a whole, HENRY IV is one of Shakespeare’s lesser works and this movie adaptation doesn’t do anything particularly special to entice one to watch both parts. There are definitely highlight scenes, amazing lines of dialogue and a great backseat performance from Jeremy Irons. However, the potentially great villain is one-dimensional, far too much time is devoted to horribly annoying comical Falstaff, and the overall experience drags throughout. Unless you’re a diehard Shakespeare fan, I’d say that you’re better off skipping HENRY IV Parts 1 and 2 in THE HOLLOW CROWN series.