While “Henry VI, Part 2” in name, this is far more an adaptation of “Henry VI, Part 3” than anything else, and what an adaptation it is. From the start, this is a much stronger film than the preceding one, with Dominic Cooke’s direction much more purposeful and inventive from the very first scene, a battle scene filmed from the point-of-view of a helmet, excellently communicating the suffocating, chaotic frenzy of battle.
Ceaseless, increasingly meaningless violence is the spirit of Shakespeare’s “Henry VI, Part 3”, and Cooke does a great job transposing that to screen. As the number of battle scenes climb up and up, one begins to feel exhausted in much the same manner of the characters. The violence seems increasingly brutal, meaningless, chaotic, frenetic, suffocating. The only character who seems to really recognise this is the eponymous king, played well by Tom Sturridge, and his arc is the closest thing to audience-identifying relatability in the film.
As with the last film, massive cuts are made to Shakespeare’s text here. Excising the entirety of the Jack Cade subplot is a damn shame, and the two “Henry VI” films here feel fundamentally odd structurally, rushed, chopped-up. That said, there’s definitely a sense of purpose and vision here, with things compressed and fiddled around with to give greater focus to Richard III, played brilliantly by Benedict Cumberbatch. In many ways, this film feels more a prequel to his “Richard III” film, the next in the series, rather than an earnest adaptation of the “Henry VI” plays in their own right, but I appreciate that those plays are much more difficult to adapt than Shakespeare’s shorter, juicier work. I think leaving any soliuquily from Richard III until the very end was a fantastic idea, and Cumberbatch delivers an astonishing performance when he finally really grabs the centre of the story.
It’s not as focused or cohesive a film as some of the earlier “Hollow Crown” adaptations, but it’s certainly a great step up from the last one, and a thrilling film in its own right. I give it four suns reflected in a sword, and an underwater crown.