An excellent adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s more overlooked plays.
Ben Whishaw is a revelation as Richard II. Richard II’s voice, his manner of speaking, is so poetic, lyrical, elegant, that every scene without him in it feels cruder in comparison. He perfectly embodies the glory and majesty of house Plantagenet. Yet that glory and majesty has made him opulent and weak. He is indecisive and too caught up in the illusory safety and divinity of royalty, too distant from the realities of how his power is constructed.
Whishaw captures this perfectly. Some of those behind the series have talked about basing the interpretation partly after Michael Jackson, and that sort of effeminate artist view is a perfect lens to interpret him through. There’s no division between the actor and the role here. Whishaw is Richard II. The part could not be played better.
The power of Richard’s house is more in the image, in its supposed divinity, than in any strength of character or military, at the time of his reign. Richard is intelligent, but the way an artist is intelligent, not the way an all-seeing politician might best be. Bolingbroke, played very well by Rory Kinnear, has that sort of intelligence. He seems the signifier of all the wars to come in how he shatters the illusion of divinity and inherent power behind the “hollow crown”.
This adaptation seems to lean less on the idea of Bolingbroke (later Henry IV) as a Machiavellian manipulator setting machinations to secure himself the crown, to the point that he seems legitimately disgusted at some of the violence others commit to secure him his position. Kinnear acts so much through his eyes that even Shakespeare’s dialogue at points seems less useful in communicating the story; Whishaw and Kinnear tell so much through their body language and faces alone.
The adaptation is extremely well-made and gorgeous, but rarely leans heavily on visual aspects to tell the story, chiefly letting the actors and the writing (smartly adapted) doing the job against a backdrop achieved through excellent costume design, score, and the like. When it does lean heavier on the visual aspects, they work very well. Two montages, roughly bookending the adaptation, effectively convey the current state of affairs for the kings at the time very well. The Christian imagery and various ways Richard’s body is dressed and framed gets across the idea of division between physical and spiritual selves so thematically central to the story, as Richard becomes increasingly aware that his mortal body is not inherently tied to his spiritually higher, kingly self, and as Bolingbroke shatters the inherent divinity of the monarchy through pursuing the throne with crude, military, physical means.
A fantastic, prestige adaptation, I give it four conspirators’ heads, and a hollow crown.