Thursday, September 1, 2016

TV Review: The Hollow Crown: Richard II (2012)

The Hollow Crown: Richard II (2012) co-written and directed by Rupert Goold based on Shakespeare's play

In 2012, England hosted the Summer Olympics. The BBC decided to have a "Cultural Olypiad" which included a series of William Shakespeare's historical play. In the first series, they presented Richard II, Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II, and Henry V.

Shakespeare's Richard II is a vainglorious and somewhat effeminate king from the late 1300s. As played masterfully by Ben Whishaw, Richard is at first sight like those ethereal, otherworldly Jesuses seen in various religious epics from Hollywood's 1950s and 1960s. He's fair skinned, skinny, soft, and doesn't quite make eye contact. He's a bit above it all, almost as if he is in love with his own kingliness. He has to settle a dispute between Henry Bolingbroke (Rory Kinnear) and the Earl of Mowbray. Henry has accused the earl of treason and has challenged him to duel to defend his claim. Richard doesn't want bloodshed on English soil, so he banishes them both, though Bolingbroke only for a few years while Mowbray may never return. The unsatisfactoriness of the arrangement is worsened when Richard visits Bolingbroke's father, John of Gaunt (Patrick Stewart), on his deathbed. After John is dead, Richard seizes all of his assets (i.e. the inheritance of Bolingbroke) to finance a war in Ireland. Richard has already taxed the rich and poor alike to finance his wars, so he is not exactly popular in England. While Richard goes to Ireland, Bolingbroke returns ostensibly to recover his lost inheritance. He quickly sweeps many nobles to his side and threatens to take the throne from Richard, making himself Henry IV. Henry's revenge on Richard and his supporters is swift and almost merciless.

I am completely unfamiliar with Richard II's story, so I can't comment on the historical accuracy. But dramatically the story is quite excellent. Richard at first seems ethereal and kind-hearted but his flawed ambition is soon revealed. He retains his sense of self-importance all the way to the end. At first he's annoying and easy to root against; as his fortunes turn sour he becomes more pathetic and sympathetic. The transition is partly to do with the writing (it is Shakespeare, after all) but also with the acting. Whishaw (who I have only seen as Q in the recent Bond flicks) gives a spell-binding performance. The rest of the cast performs admirably too.

The contrast between Richard and Henry is interesting as well. Richard is soft and weak but has a sense of his own authority and importance as the king. Henry is hard and strong with a respect for the king if not full trust in him. Richard's sumptuous living shows a detachment from others. Henry appears mostly in his armor and travel clothes. Even as king, his wardrobe is still simple and reminiscent of his battlewear. The two men have some respect for each other, but for both of them that respect gives way to harsh ambition with some devastating consequences.

This TV movie has very high production values. The locations look as good as any theatrical release and the buildings' interiors and exteriors look authentically medieval. The camera work is decidedly unstagey, with some interesting and meaningful shots that a theatrical audience could never see (at one point the crown is handed between the two men and the point of view if from beneath, so the screen shows Richard II framed by the crown then Henry; it's hard to describe but amazing to see).

Highly recommended!

The next play is Henry IV Part 1 with Jeremy Irons as King Henry and Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal. I will definitely watch that!

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