Billing it, as the press ads do, as "Shakespeare's greatest play" is several bridges too far, though the blustering, vainglorious and very thirsty Sir John Falstaff who makes his second appearance in this screen version of a Royal Shakespeare Company production, is unquestionably the playwright's greatest comic creation.
And Sher's performance really comes into its own here, because it's Falstaff's play much more than Part 1 was: the title character is a minor one and the nobles' rebellion takes a back seat, although the closing scenes maintain the element of a morality play designed to reassure a 1590s audience fretful about the successor to a childless monarch.
Instead of a singular narrative, Shakespeare gives us scenes from the life of an ageing party boy, unaware -- until his abrupt spurning by the newly crowned Henry V at the end -- that his happy days are coming to an end.
Thus the play unravels as a series of vignettes, including poetic arias that show the Bard in full flight (Northumberland's mourning for his fallen son Hotspur is a cracker). Mainly, though, comic scenes introduce us to some of the most memorably named characters in the canon: Pistol, played by Byrne as a cross between Johnny Rotten and Schwarzenegger's Terminator; a good-time girl called Doll Tearsheet; layabouts named Scroop and Wart.
Davies, a familiar face, is terrific as Shallow, but it's Sher's Sir John who steals his own show. He fills out the buffoon of Part 1 so he becomes a nuanced character showing flashes of tenderness as he absorbs the intimations of his own mortality. First-rate entertainment.
Anthony Sher, Alex Hassell, Jasper Britton, Trevor White, Oliver Ford Davies, Anthony Byrne
Anthony Sher's Falstaff comes into its own