Shakespeare November! Review: The Hollow Crown (2013)

I’M BACK!  I really need to update this blog a lot more, but we will see what happens.  Anyway, I’ve decided for the month of November to review the adapted works of William Shakespeare on Film!  To start things off, I am going to do a series of reviews based on “The Hollow Crown” TV show that appeared on PBS last year.

Commissioned for the 2012 Cultural Olympiad by the BBC, “The Hollow Crown” is an adaptation of what Shakespearean scholars commonly call the “Henriad”, which includes the rise of the House of Lancaster and the growth of Henry V.  The plays in this saga include “Richard II”, “Henry IV, parts 1 & 2” and “Henry V”.  In adapting this series, it is interesting that they also included the little performed “Richard II” which is often overlooked and widely considered an inferior play to the other plays in the Henriad saga.  However, it is the adaptation of “Richard II” that stands out in “The Hollow Crown”.

Ben Whishaw as Richard II

“Richard II” deals with the rise of the fall of King Richard II (played by Ben Whishaw) and the rise of Henry Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV) who usurps the throne from the weak and effeminate Richard.  While the play is widely regarded as the weakest in the Henriad, the real truth is that in the right hands, “Richard II” can be a very compelling piece of art, as it is in this adaptation of “The Hollow Crown”.  Whishaw’s Richard is incredible and captivating.  You cannot take your eyes off him as he goes from vainglorious monarch to a pathetic creature.  His interplays with Bolingbroke (played by Rory Kinnear) are also great and you really get to see a wonderful contrast in the acting between the proud yet humble Bolingbroke and the pompous but somehow sympathetic Richard.  Also featuring performances from Patrick Stewart, David Suchet, James Purefoy, and Clemence Poesy, “Richard II” is by far the most compelling and interesting of the entire “Hollow Crown” trilogy.

Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff and Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal in Henry IV part 1

The weakest of the trilogy is by far “Henry IV parts 1 & 2”.   While “Henry IV part 1” is good because it features tight action, compelling acting, especially from Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff, Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal, and Joe Armstrong as Hotspur; “Henry IV Part 2” is incredibly weak and this has more to do with the writing itself.  While it takes big balls to say that some of Shakespeare’s writing is terrible, the truth is “Henry IV Part 2” does not even seem like a play.  There is no driving action and barely any character growth until the final few instances of the piece (the main scenes being where Hal rejects Falstaff which feels like a betrayal).  It almost seems as though Shakespeare’s audience demanded another play with the same characters and he wrote it  just to cash in on a cheap sequel (funny how little changes).  While I would recommend just sticking to “Henry IV Part I”, the fact that the producers kept the same actors playing the same characters between “Henry IV” and “Henry V” lends to the work a greater emotional arc and heavier audience investment in the fate of the characters.

Tom Hiddleston as Henry V

The Final Part of “The Hollow Crown” is the adaptation of “Henry V”.  As said earlier the majority of actors that had appeared in “Henry IV” now reprise their roles in “Henry V” which lends to the piece more of a direct sequel instead of it being a completely separate piece, which is how it has normally been performed.  One of the notable effects of the linking of characters between the previous parts is the death of Falstaff and Bardolph. While these deaths occur in the original “Henry V” they almost appear as an afterthought and you only get a sense of Henry being a complete jerk to his former friends.  In this version however, Henry is portrayed with a sense of steely resolve, but underneath steely resolve is a man who is quietly hurting due to his friends death.  This interpretation of the character not only belongs to the director Thea Sharrock, but also to Tom Hiddleston’s performance as Henry.  He is a man that while he is hurting to due to the death and sacrifice of his men, he also knows that he must lead them in victory by maintaining a steely reserve.  This performance as Prince Hal/Henry by Hiddleston is surely a revelation and one that should cause people to view him differently than just as Loki or the guy in the Jaguar commercials.

Overall, I would say that the “Hollow Crown” is engrossing experience but one that perhaps could have been adapted better. They are still worth a watch, especially for those who love Shakespeare and are familiar with his works.  But for those that are knew, I recommend perhaps viewing one of Laurence Olivier’s or Kenneth Branagh’s works before diving into “The Hollow Crown”

Fun Fact #1: Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary from “Downton Abbey”) is Lady Percy!  Plus seeing David Suchet play a non-Poirot character is awesome!  As much as I love Poirot, I would love to see him do more Shakespeare.

Fun Fact # 2: The next adaptation of “The Hollow Crown” is to include “Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 & 3” and “Richard III” to make the history plays complete.  Benedict Cumberbatch is supposedly playing Richard III.

Fun Fact # 3: Produced by Sam Mendes.

Final Reviews:

Richard II: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars

Henry IV Part 1: 3  out of 4 stars

Henry IV Part 2: 2  out of 4 stars

Henry V: 3 out of 4 stars

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