The Hollow Crown (2012)

“The Hollow Crown” is a series of acclaimed 2012 TV film adaptations of Shakespeare’s Henriad, his epic historical tetralogy covering the reign of multiple English kings. I’ve reviewed them separately as films, but will compile those reviews here to address the overall series.

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The Hollow Crown: Richard II

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.

The Hollow Crown: Henry IV, Part 1

The premise of this, the BBC’s “The Hollow Crown” television film series, was to adapt Shakespeare’s historical plays in sequence. Adapting them as ultimately a single extended production was meant to bring “weight and depth” to the “iconic characters”, as well as the stories within. Seeing Tom Hiddleston as Hal here, who would later become Henry V, across three television films, both allows the actor to develop their performance with great depth, but also for the impact of the writing to be even more keenly felt, as the viewers see the same figures morph and change over the course of time. The second cycle of this series does the same, chiefly with Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III, but in both cycles, primary characters and side characters are maintained in this ambitious, powerful method of sequential storytelling.

Why, oh why, then, was Henry IV (and, to a lesser extent, Northumberland) recast for this, “Henry IV, Part 1”? Was not the entire premise of “The Hollow Crown” to adapt Shakespeare’s histories as a sort of prestige drama in the stylings of television? With recurring casts? Why were Rory Kinnear and David Morrisey not brought back here to continue their performances? Why bring on entirely different actors? Jeremy Irons and Alun Armstrong don’t emulate any part of Kinnear or Morrisey’s performances; they feel nearly like entirely different characters. Irons is a fantastic, brilliant actor, and he delivers a magnificent performance here, but I’m utterly baffled by why the team behind “The Hollow Crown” undercut the main novelty of their entire production by recasting Kinnear.

Continuity with “Richard II” is tenuous; while it’s referred to in dialogue, there are no flashbacks, there are no attempts to marry the performances of the different actors playing the same people…overall, it feels woefully divorced from the previous production. Deeply disappointing, when so much of the appeal of the series to me was the continuity.

Taken entirely on its own merits, the adaptation is very good. Hiddleston makes for an excellent Hal, Simon Russell Beale is a most memorable Falstaff, Joe Armstrong gets the fervour of Hotspur just right, and Irons is as skilled as every in the titular role (although I found Kinnear’s performance of the character more nuanced). Still, he nails the relationship between himself and his son, which feels like the centrepiece of the story. One of my very favourite scenes was where Hal, at the Boar’s Head inn, imitates his father, carrying out a most amusing pantomime of Jeremy Irons’ cadence and delivery. They really did feel like father and son.

The film lacks the visual splendours of “Richard II”, or any sequence as memorable as the beach scene or montages in that preceding film, but the Battle of Shrewsbury is a particular highlight, staged very well. Hal and Hotspur’s swordfight was choreographed well, in a way that felt dramatic and engaging, but also realistic to the time. Still, director Richard Eyre certainly falls short of the high standards set by Rupert Goold’s direction of “Richard II”, disappointing both in being a plainly lesser affair, and for breaking visual continuity that might have been important in establishing the connections between the films, already so disrupted by the recastings.

For many reasons, this is a much lesser work than the preceding film, but it still has many strengths, not least of which is the excellent performances. I give it three and a half boar’s heads, and an overbearing score.

The Hollow Crown: Henry IV, Part 2

My complaints about the recastings in “Henry IV, Part 1” undermining the premise of this series – a unified production tackling Shakespeare’s English history plays in sequence – continue here as any impact James Purefoy as Thomas of Mowbray returning is defeated by Pip Torrens taking his place, unrecognisable as the same character except a line or two of easily-missed dialogue saying as much. Why is “Richard II” treated as the off-to-the-side disconnected entry in the series, when it’s so key to the characters, story, and themes in these later instalments?

On its own merits, to my mind this television film is worse than the preceding one, “Henry IV, Part 1”, which was already a step down from “Richard II”. However, a lot of that is due to the nature of the play it’s adapting, rather than any faults in the adaptation itself – the play lacks a strong villain, regresses many characters to the point where they basically just repeat their development in the climax of the preceding play in new ways, and the disparate and padded subplots don’t converge neatly as they did at the Battle of Shrewsbury.

The visuals, performances and general quality of the production are as strong as the last film. The score is also used more appropriately, not as overbearingly as it was used in “Henry IV, Part 1”. Hiddleston and Irons are excellent, particularly in their very powerful scenes together. Simon Russell Beale, playing Falstaff, is clearly a very skilled actor, and has even more to do here than in the last film, but I’m unsure of some of the broader directorial choices of the play regarding the character. Were his scenes intended to be so overwhelmingly melancholy? The two Henry IV plays abound with doubles and contrasts – Falstaff and Henry IV as alternate father figures for Hal, the Boar’s Head inn contrasting with Henry IV’s court, the stability of noble marriages contrasting with the breezy inconsistency of the prostitutes at the selfsame inn, the creative wit Hal hears from Falstaff contrasted with the sterile recitations of the nobles, and so on – so making Falstaff’s scenes so tonally similar to the rest of the dour play felt an odd choice to me, one that perhaps lessened the impact of the ending, where Hal’s position on the two worlds he’s lived in, the high and the low, comes to a head.

Perhaps I should just be happy that the preceding film displayed Falstaff’s joviality well, and instead of taking the use of Falstaff here as a missed opportunity to develop the contrasts established in the play, instead look on him comparatively to Henry IV. Both are sick, coming to terms with their age, both are father figures to Hal, and Hal’s very different treatments of them at the end of the play are the cornerstone of the whole piece. Maybe the overwhelmingly dour tone of this film was intended to immerse the viewers in the mindset of the three main characters (Henry IV, Hal, Falstaff), and keep up the promise of the title, “the Hollow Crown”, not just the arbitrariness of the monarchy but also the Pyrrhic victory that wearing the crown is. After all, “Henry IV, Part 2” is where Henry IV delivers his most famous line – “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” (often misquoted as “heavy lies the crown”) -, played excellently by Jeremy Irons here. Hal’s most potent realisation of that truth comes at the ending, played well by Tom Hiddleston, but Beale steals the show through his reaction.

This adaptation was less enjoyable than the preceding two, but much of that comes from the nature of the text it’s adapting, both in terms of the more dour tone, and sloppier content. Still, a powerful prestige adaptation led by many excellent performers. I give it three and a half bribes, and a thousand pounds.

The Hollow Crown: Henry V

“The Hollow Crown: Henry V” opens years after the events of the play it’s based on, showing the titular character’s funeral procession, lingering on a shot of his dead face as the title card “Henry V, by William Shakespeare” flashes on-screen. This inclusion is not part of Shakespeare’s play, nor of most other adaptations. It signifies a commitment to the title of the series, a BBC television film series aiming to adapt the four plays of Shakespeare’s first historical “Henriad” sequence cohesively as a unified production, “The Hollow Crown”, taken from a speech from Richard II; “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground / and tell sad stories of the death of kings”.

The hollowness of the crown, the arbitrariness of the monarchy, is a huge factor not in the “Richard II / Henry VI, Part 1 / Henry VI, Part 2 / Henry V” sequence, but also in the following “Henry VI, Part 1 / Henry VI, Part 2 / Henry VI, Part 3/ Richard III” sequence that the BBC ended up adapting under the same “The Hollow Crown” banner some years later. Bolingbroke/Henry IV’s unlawful deposition of Richard II sets off the chain of events that culminates in the birth of the Tudor dynasty, and the end of the reign of Plantagenet, Lancaster, and York. What is it that then fills a crown, if the circumstances of one winning it are meaningless? What did Henry V have that led him to do the impossible and win France? What did Henry VI lack, that led him to lose it?

My reading of the play as Shakespeare wrote it is that Henry V understood the power of language. The importance of language is a consistent theme in the play, from the alienation audiences feel in the scenes consisting entirely of spoken French, the rhetorical brilliance of Henry V enlivening and motivating the English to triumph against the French against all odds, and the Chorus guiding the audience into a shared mental construct where the audience’s imagination synthesise with the Chorus’ (Shakespeare’s in truth) language to create an experience of such grand spectacle as the historical events themselves. This adaptation doesn’t lean as heavily on that reading as I do, somewhat understandably. In film, the camera itself already is something of a “muse of fire”, so having the Chorus (played excellently by John Hurt) actually recite his prologues feels awkward at times – the spectacle of the Battle of Agincourt is literally visually displayed to the viewers, we don’t need the Chorus to excuse the lack of armies on-stage, because we are actually effectively seeing armies on-screen. A subtler point about audience participation and imagination being key in the postmodern conception of fiction as a two-way relationship between author and audience, rather than a one-way transmission from the author, would work, but that’s rather difficult to communicate in a film consisting entirely of Shakespeare’s original language.

Instead of that ever-present focus on language, the film takes something of a jingoistic bent – not to the extent of the 1940s Laurence Olivier adaptation (considered quite literal propaganda by some for its focus on the nationalistic elements of the play and the fact the British government funded it as a “morale booster” during wartime), but still noticeably. Henry V’s “we happy few” speech is staged here fittingly, with Henry V surrounded just by a “happy few” rather than endless legions of soldiers as in some more literal and less faithful adaptations, but his triumph over the French seems here more a result of the acumen of the British rather than the possibly more realistic explanation that the weather hampered the mounted French and the English longbows proved an excellent weapon against them (the direction Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 adaptation takes), or a result of the motivating, reality-bending power of language Henry V uses with his men. This adaptation lacks any blatant jingoism, but it seems jingoistic by process of elimination if nothing else – how else did Henry V triumph? What else is the idea behind this play? The film itself was made as contribution to the British “Cultural Olympiad” in 2012.

The technical aspects of the production were mostly great, particularly the staging of the Battle of Agincourt, where stellar performances, suitable (but not overpowering, as in some of the earlier films of the series) music, sharp choreography, and deft editing combined in a transcendent sequence. However, ADR was really, really noticeable at points, to the point where odd hissing could be heard, and the levels of different actor’s voices were wildly different in some dialogues.

My biggest issue with the film is the same issue I had with the preceding adaptations of “Henry IV”; the series undercuts its own promise to form a cohesive, linear, sequential adaption of Shakespeare’s Henriad with the continuity of a modern television or film series (that is, retaining recurring actors for characters, cohesive visual style, adherence to continuity spanning individual entries, and so on), as some actors reprise their performances from the earlier entries (like Tom Hiddleston, skillfully charting the titular character’s evolution from the preceding plays logically, and generally doing the continuity work through his performance unaided, apart from the rare short flashback) yet others bizarrely don’t. Here, Paterson Joseph plays the Duke of York. He’s a great actor, and gives a great performance. But, would anyone unfamiliar with the plays realise he is the same character portrayed by Tom Hughes in “The Hollow Crown: Richard II”, the Duke of Aumerle? The character was one of Richard II’s closest friends, who at the ending of the film is shamed for his plans to rebel against the upstart Bolingbroke/Henry IV, but is condescendingly forgiven by the new king and, in a sequence original to the adaptation, kills Richard II himself as penance? Very powerful stuff, quite literally the climax of the first film in the series, and nearly everybody watching this, ostensibly the last film of the series (as thought at the time), won’t realise that an integral character in this film, is that very same character. There are no flashbacks indicating so, Paterson Joseph and Tom Hughes look nothing alike, and the character himself wouldn’t have aged nearly as much at this point in history to necessitate recasting with an older actor. It’s a painfully enormous missed opportunity.

This adaptation lacks focus at times, and sometimes undercuts itself by neglecting its own unique potential, but is still a marvellous work, excellently-made, and upheld by powerful performances. I give it four longbows, and a hand in marriage.

Overall Thoughts

An inspired prestige adaptation of Shakespeare’s English histories, its few flaws stemming more from its own ambitions rather than any lack of care. Brilliantly cast, mostly strongly-adapted, occasionally haphazardly-structured, with an inconsistent attitude to continuity, but a truly cinematic sense of prestige. I give it four boar’s heads, and a longbow.

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