Screens at CIFF: 10/19 & 10/20
World premiere: 19 October, 2013, Chicago International Film Festival

I should open with the disclaimer that I'm not sure if the version of H4 screened at the Chicago International Film Festival, and thus the version that I'm reviewing, has been completed. There are places where the sound mix has a harsh tang that suggests it has one more sweetening session to go, and in at least two places there are mistakes in the editing that go beyond "this wasn't the right editorial choice" and into "this isn't final cut" - a few frames of timestamp visible in the corner, for example. This matters on an ethical level, to start with, but it's also possible, if the film hasn't completely wrapped up its post-production, that it hasn't gone through its final image correction either, and that could very well address one of my absolute biggest problems with the movie. As I hear more about this, I will change things here as appropriate.

In the meantime, the film: a passion project for executive producer and co-star Harry Lennix, financed on Kickstarter (a triumph for that service in a way that e.g. Spike Lee or Rob "Veronica Mars" aren't), in which William Shakespeare's two Henry IV plays are brought into contemporary Los Angeles and played out among the African-American community there. As I had not expected going into it, Shakespeare's language is left almost entirely intact, with place names changed to reflect the realities of the world it's depicting; Hal (Amad Jackson) is now the "Prince of Watts", and there is a contingent of warlike Jamaicans, for example. The first few times these changes make themselves felt, it's weird and distracting, but I quickly got used to it, and much prefer it to the more desperate approach of William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, for example, which tries to argue that "Sword" is the name of a gun manufacturer.

We have, anyway, the familiar story of Henry IV (Lennix), who usurped the leadership of a people in the hopes that a strong hand could keep the peace in a difficult time, though of course the heirs to leadership with a better claim didn't agree. Henry's son Hal is too busy drinking and fooling around with the dissolute John Falstaff (Angus Macfadyen) to attend to matters of state, and the ruler pangs to have a son more honorable and concerned with political realities. To be more like Harry "Hotspur" Percy (Geno Monteiro), currently fighting under the command of Worcester (Keith David) to put Edmund Mortimer (Kevin Yarbrough) in power over Henry, and the fact that his ideal son is currently fighting against him causes Henry great consternation.

The film is a noble experiment entirely, though I'm not absolutely sure that applying the dramatic situation of 15th Century English dynastic politics to the daily life of L.A. African-Americans does a whole lot to elucidate the experiences of the latter group. And I'm entirely certain that it doesn't do all that much to elucidate Shakespeare, though that has more to do with the choices of compression made by the writers, more than anything to do with the setting - in order to fit two plays into less than two hours, most of the material not directly concerning the politics have to be carved out, which means less Falstaff, which makes all of us unhappy, but it also means less Hal, which makes the drama less interesting (it also means more Henry IV, which is actually to the film's benefit, given that Lennix is giving the very best performance of the whole cast, moody and tormented and regal in all the right ways). Also, the film accentuates just how much the plays are separate, and how they can't be stuck together in one package without the climax feeling misapplied badly - the Henry IV, Part 1 material ends about 90 minutes in, and the rest of the film feels bulky and padded.

The worse problem is that it looks a little funky: for no reason that is ever clear to me, Henry's court is literally inside a theater, and half the time it feels like we're meant to understand that the characters are play-acting, not going through the literal reality of their story, except that much of the film takes place in actual Los Angeles, clearly melding Shakespeare and this time & place to much better effect than the theater scenes do. It's also been weirdly shot, with uneven lighting and a sense of cheapness that undercuts the seriousness of the drama.

Even with all of that being true - and it is not little stuff - I thoroughly enjoyed the thing. For one, there's the novelty of transporting Shakespeare to a bold new setting, and even if the adaptation focuses on elements I shouldn't have done myself, it's still 1 Henry IV, one of the playwright's best works, and seeing it rejuvenated like this is terrifically appealing. Especially since most of the performances are very good (only Lennix and David rise to great), with just a couple of actors who clearly don't understand the nuances of what their lines mean or what their function in the drama is meant to be. Certainly the Hal/Henry relationship, which is this adaptation's primary concern, comes through beautifully here, with all of Jackson's best work coming in his scenes with Lennix (in contrast, he plays the Falstaff scenes almost entirely as foil to Macfadyen, whose Falstaff is suitably comic but not very humane - but then, he's been stripped of some of his most humanising moments).

The thing might be best thought of as a visually uncertain recording of several engaging performances - a staged reading, basically. Probably not the ideal way to handle the project, and I'd love to see the concept get a more thorough workout with more budget and resources to flesh it out, but even in this form, H4 is a damn unique thing, and entirely worth the enthusiasm its makers felt for it. It might be compromised, but it still ends up in a worthy, honorable place.