The Hollow Crown: Henry V, BBC2, Saturday / The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family, Wednesday, Channel 4
The last of the BBC's Shakespeare history plays takes a more intimate, low-key look at Henry V
Last night gave us the final part of The Hollow Crown, the BBC's Olympic hurrah, corralling the cream of the country's thespians into adapting four of Shakespeare's history plays. It was the turn of Henry V – and you couldn't help feeling a tad sorry for its director Thea Sharrock. There's not much competition for filmed Richard IIs or Henry IVs, but she gets to follow in the footsteps of not only Laurence Olivier, but also Kenneth Branagh's 1989 film.
It's not a challenge Sharrock rises to spectacularly. Compared with the light touch of Rupert Goold's colourful, inventive Richard II screened a few weeks ago, she seems to have gone for the predictable period drama approach. It's a gloomy, soupy thing, in the familiar mould of many a literary adaptation, and feels staid and stodgy for such a violent play. Sharrock also resists – or ducks – any decision on whether Henry V is a piece of patriotism glorifying war, or an argument against rushing in to fight battles where "the cause be not good".
Branagh's protégé, Tom Hiddleston, plays Harry with plenty of dash, as he matures from youthful spirit – skipping through court as he slips his crown on – to a soldier who leads his country to war. When that insulting delivery of tennis balls from the French arrives, we see a King who doesn't want to play games any more, with Hiddleston getting a serious, vengeful stomp on. He also chomps through some rhyming couplets rather heavily, but mostly Hiddleston is natural with the verse – and nails the upbeat, virulent charisma a good Harry needs to chum on his soldiers in desperate situations.
But he also has an uncertain, thoughtful side, and the most notable and interesting thing about this Henry V is the decision to play it low, keep it intimate. Much of "Once more unto the breach ..." is delivered on one knee to just a gaggle of men, Hiddleston slowly swelling from all-in-this-together sympathy to breathless intensity. Later, the St Crispin's Day speech really is only for "we few" – and as it is spoken to a small group, one by one, we see Harry's own pre-battle uneasiness melting into a smile. It's a surprisingly sweet, rather than grandstanding, moment. Of course, TV cameras allow for such sotto voce intimacy where the stage does not; it's a smart move by Sharrock.
The battle of Agincourt isn't exactly blockbuster stuff, but judicious use of close ups, slo-mo and low-angled battle-line shots are effective, even if the squelching stab noises are a bit fruity. The soundtrack, too, is predictably overblown: there's no resisting the temptation to swathe historic dramas in strained strings and ominous horns.
Fighting spirit was also on display in The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family – except that British wrestling is in terminal decline, and all that the Knight family, our wrestling dynasty of choice, seems to want is to make it big in America, where wrestlers are baby-oiled up and thrust in front of TV cameras instead of scrapping in half-empty halls in Norfolk.
The voice-over promises that "wrestling has always kept this family together – but this year it's going to tear them apart". The Knights' daughter, Saraya (stage name: Britani), bags the chance to go to the US to perform – sorry, "fight" – for the huge federation WWE. Her brother Zak is told he doesn't have the physique. It feels like a low blow.
But this dream turns out to be as hollow as any aforementioned crowns. The Knights are clearly a tight family, but there's also something creepy about the pushy parents promoting their kids as the family business. Mum Julia says of Saraya "she's a product", while dad Ricky ickily declares: "She been groomed for this." So, when they start snivelling and whining about how terribly they miss her, you can't help but think they brought it on themselves.
There's more sympathy for Saraya, who, despite having a gobby mouth, enormous eyebrows and bulging biceps, is just an 18-year-old dreaming of ponies and private jets. She finds herself alone in a more cynical world, where it's all about "T&A" – tits and arse – instead of fighting skills. She may be rebranded as Paige, a mysterious femme fatale, by WWE, but despite her gorgeous grown-up figure, it's clear that (to quote another Britney) she's not yet a woman: she's just a lonely girl on the other side of the world from her family.
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