The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses (2016)

A follow-up series to the BBC’s 2012 adaptations of Shakespeare’s Henriad, covering the second cycle of plays in that sequence. I’ve reviewed these television films separately as films, but will compile those reviews here to address the overall series.

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The Hollow Crown: Henry VI, Part 1

A competent adaptation drawing from Shakespeare’s “Henry VI” plays, though less cohesive and powerful as the earlier “Hollow Crown” adaptations.

Though the name suggests otherwise, this isn’t really a straight adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Henry VI, Part 1”, as it takes and conflates elements from the later “Henry VI” plays. Very understandable, given the three “Henry VI” plays are oddly-structured, and have less traditional pacing than most of Shakespeare’s other plays, with “Part 1” languid and table-setting, and “Part 3” overran with countless stagings of battles. Only “Part 2” really functions like a regular play the way the other history plays do, so meshing together some elements from it into this apparent “Part 1” makes sense well enough. While much is conflated, a lot is removed, unfortunately including the Jack Cade subplot, one of the highlights of these plays.

The chopping and tinkering with the source material seems justified enough, but what ends up as the final product really isn’t as compelling as the earlier “Hollow Crown” adaptations. The production values are high, the cast is skilled (I particularly liked Tom Sturridge’s performance in the titular role, he felt lifted right off the page such as it were), the language (of course) is captivating, but it lacks the cohesion or vision of the earlier entries. It feels like things are being rushed through just to get to the emergence of Richard III, played be Benedict Cumberbatch in the following entries.

It’s a gorgeous adaptation in many ways, but also a stilted one. In its efforts to adapt out some of the odd pacing and extraneous material of the source material, the film feels like it became oddly paced and somewhat extraneous in its own right. Still, a noble effort. I give it three paper crowns, and a white rose.

The Hollow Crown: Henry VI, Part 2

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.

The Hollow Crown: Richard III

A powerful, fitting end to the BBC’s “Hollow Crown” series. Not since the first such episode, the adaptation of “Richard II”, has the series’ name seemed more appropriate, as Richard III acts as the ultimate, perhaps inevitable product of a feudal society where the nobility has recognised the crown as “hollow”, not divinely ordained, but instead something that can be seized by one with the strength, wit, or any means to do so.

Richard III, as played here by Benedict Cumberbatch, certainly has the means to do so. Cumberbatch avoids leaning too much on camp or moustache-twirling villainy, instead emphasising Richard III’s great skill in language (better than Tom Hiddleston did as “Henry V”, a king with a similar skill in wordplay). Richard III’s many diabolical plans actually working seems completely believable and well-founded in this adaptation, with Cumberbatch presenting a Richard III capable of seducing, manipulating, and ably convincing others. The other component to Richard III’s rise being so believable is how this film functions as the finale to all the preceding films, or episodes. Ever since Bolingbroke (Henry IV, as he was later styled) exposed the hollowness of the crown, ever since he seized the throne, the times have gotten increasingly violent and more suited to Machiavellian scheming. To expand on that point, I’ll link here my review of the play itself, where I go into more detail on what Richard III represents in the context of Shakespeare’s historical cycles.

As for the film itself, it’s full of great performances (just like all the other entries in this series), high production value, and all the trappings of prestige drama. It is, however, unfortunately plagued by some technical issues of earlier “Hollow Crown” films, namely some extremely noticeable ADR with accompany high-pitched sound effects. Quite distracting at times, most notably with Richmond’s lines, and some of Richard’s. Some touches I did like in the film were the ending shot (a very powerful and appropriate capstone for the series), and the way Richard III’s anxious tapping was integrated into the musical score in a very impressive montage-esque sequence.

A very fitting end for the “Hollow Crown” series, both in terms of content and quality. I give it four murderous lackeys, and a proffered dagger.

Overall Thoughts

Very much a worthy follow-up to the already excellent 2012 series, but one lacking some of that earlier cohesion. It has a stronger, more focused sense of purpose, but that comes at the cost of warping the original texts to a degree that sometimes has the films come off rather wobbly. It all works its way to a fantastic finale, but getting to that point was a tad rougher than it could have been at times. I give it three and a half roses of red, and one of white.

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