TV REVIEW: The Hollow Crown - Henry V

The final episode of The Hollow Crown charts the reign of Henry V and in particular, his rise to become a warrior king, accepting the challenge to invade France with the scene set for a crucial battle on a field in Agincourt.

King Henry (Tom Hiddleston), now sporting a rather impressive goatee and a kingly codpiece (I wasn't actively looking, it was just very obvious), is reigning over a more peaceful England. That is until the French ambassador shows up with the challenge from the Dauphin to test his mettle against the French forces. Never one to back down from a fight, Henry accepts the gauntlet, deftly avoiding an assassination attempt and assembling an invading force from across England with the encouragement of Exeter (Anton Lesser) and York (Paterson Joseph). The scene is set for one of the most famous confrontations ever and as the two armies close in on the fields of Agincourt, Henry must prove that he is worthy to wear the English crown.

The character arc for Henry, going from Prince Hal to the King of England over the course of three plays, has been one of the highlights of The Hollow Crown with assured performances from Tom Hiddleston charting each stage of the character's progression. His first appearance in the episode, riding across the fields before hurrying into the throne room, demonstrate that he's still the same man who enjoyed partaking in a pint or two at the tavern but has now accepted his responsibilities as King. Keen to prove himself, the challenge from the French ambassador allows him to do so and his acceptance was a great point of entry into the most war-ridden plays of the Henriad. Whilst it's not quite a 'This is Sparta' moment, Henry's message to the Dauphin's ambassador is very clear; he's on his way and he's bringing a lot of friends with him. 

Famously, Shakespeare knew of the problems of presenting a play set mostly at war in France whilst having very little scenery to convey this setting so he created the role of the Chorus, a character whose sole purpose was to aid the audience in their imagination. Naturally a television programme has considerably more resources than an Elizabethan theatre but the decision to include the Chorus as a narrator in the guise of John Hurt's raspy tones proves inspired. The narration adds to the cinematic feel the series has worked hard to create and adds an increasing sense of familiarity to the proceedings. After all, Henry is a character we have followed since his youth and becomes someone you feel you know and could fight alongside, evident within the narrative itself; Henry spends half of his time conversing with the men around him, regardless of whether he is low or high-born.

This continues when we get to the actual war scenes, some of the most well-known in literature, the drama and pace is continued but with the emphasis placed on Henry as a king of the people (as practised with Falstaff in Mistress Quickly's tavern). The 'Once more unto the breach' scene is a particular highlight and rather than the usual posturing adopted for a rallying speech that has been seen in the likes of 300 and Troy, director Thea Sharrock adopts a more intimate approach. Henry is on the ground with his men rather than sat astride his horse, speaking to each one of them in turn and the speech becomes more than just a soundbite to later be termed 'epic'. The St. Crispin's Day speech, a bastion of English Literature, is similarly understated yet just as powerful, rousing and inspiring without descending into over-dramatic shouting. Hiddleston delivers both as measured, well-thought out addresses and with a gravitas that suits the King of England on a battefield. This king is very much one of the people, a link back to his earlier days as an honourary resident of East Cheap and the loyalty he inspires is easily seen in these moments.

The Battle of Agincourt itself is a thrilling piece of television, well-befitting of one of the most famous battles in English history. From the overwhelming odds stacked against the invading forces to the bloodiness of the battle itself, the audience is allowed to get up close and personal to the fighting, making it the best battle sequence in the whole of The Hollow Crown. Shakespeare did not shy away from presenting the negative aspects of the battle either, namely Henry's decision to execute the French prisoners they had taken and neither does Sharrock, showing the scene in all its cold brutality. It adds to Henry's character, given him a multi-dimensional quality; he's not just a hero to be glorified but also a man who makes rash decisions and mistakes as a result. 

Additionally, we also see that Henry's romantic side as he must secure the hand of the French princess. Yes, this episode isn't all manly blood and guts, we even get some romance in the mix with a lovely scene between the King and his future bride, Princess Katherine. One of the best scenes in the play, the couple have to navigate the language barrier between them, offering Hiddleston a chance to show his romantic lead potential with the kind of bumbling attempt at wooing that Hugh Grant would be proud of. This scene, also thanks to an adorable turn from Melanie Thierry as Katherine, provides a peaceful and (mostly) happy ending to a character that we've seen develop over the course of the series. The decision to include Henry's funeral as the final scene provides a bittersweet note to the finale. It returns the series full circle to its themes of inheritance and the weighty responsibility of kingship, leaving the throne to Henry's infant son and I'm not ashamed to admit, I shed a tear or two during the Chorus' final speech.

The Hollow Crown has been a triumph from start to finish and Saturday nights are going to be poorer now that it has all finished. Well-edited and beautifully presented, this is Shakespeare as it should be experienced in all its muddy, bloody and drunken glory. From the tumultuous reign of Richard II, through the family dramas of Henry IV and the final, climactic battles of Henry V, each episode has brought its own themes and classic moments to the fore with fantastic performances from every single cast member. I cannot praise it enough and, if you haven't caught it or missed an episode, I urge to go and watch it all because it could be a while before we see Shakespeare done in such a fantastic and enjoyable way for some time.

- Becky

You can read Becky's review of The Hollow Crown - Henry IV Part Two here

You can find more of Becky's writings here or follow her on Twitter @beckygracelea

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