Tuesday, February 12, 2013

"The Hollow Crown"

     Over the last three weeks PBS has been running a series called "Shakespeare Uncovered" which has been excellent and very enjoyable.  The segment on the history plays - Richard II, Henry IV, parts 1 and 2, and Henry V - really caught my eye due to the focus on a new filmed production of these 4 plays in England and broadcast under the overall title "The Hollow Crown." Of course they have not been released here in the US and one hopes that in time they will be.  However, after a little searching on the internet - guess what - all 4 plays can be seen in their entirety on YouTube (just search for "The Hollow Crown").  So over the last 2 weeks I have taken the time to watch them and thought I would share some thoughts about these films.  They were apparently filmed in anticipation of the Olympics and the Queen's 50th Anniversary and they were broadcast last summer around the time of the Olympics.  The casts include some of England's finest actors, and on the whole I found all 4 plays to be very well done and at times moving and beautifully performed.  The on-location filming was one of the best things about the films.  But they are not perfect, and so below are a couple comments about the individual films.
     Richard II stars the young British actor Ben Whishaw who has been very busy of late in "Cloud Atlas" and Helen Mirran's "Tempest."  For me "Richard II" and this performance of the title role was the high point in the entire series.  Whishaw really captures Richard's self love and Christ ideation. The supporting cast was outstanding - led by Patrick Stewart as John of Gaunt and David Suchet (of "Poirot" fame) as Edmund, the Duke of York. Unfortunately I could not find an online complete cast list so I cannot identify the actors.  But in addition to Stewart and Suchet I was also taken with the young actor who played the Duke of Aumerle and the actor who played the Earl of Northumberland. I found this to be the strongest of the 4 films, though there are a couple things worth noting.  1st, I found it very interesting that the director completely changed the ending - eliminating the character of Sir Pierce of Exton, who is the one who Shakespeare appoints to execute Richard.  He is replaced in the films by the character of the Duke of Aumerle, who is York's son and had been one of the conspirators.  By doing this the director strengthened the Christ analogy by having Aumerle play Judas.  It is too bad Shakespeare didn't think of this.  And if you think about it too long it starts to fall apart dramatically.  I think that was a misfire and a mistake.  Also, while I suppose that it is to be expected that plays where there is plenty of sword fights, battles and people having their heads cut off would include some blood and violence I found it notable that only Richard II of the 4 had explicit violence - namely the execution by beheading of Bushy and Greene done in all if gory excess. I had expected this to be the norm and was ready for another beheading in Henry IV part 2 (the Archbishop of York and his compatriots) but no.  Bushy and Greene were it - so in retrospect it seems gratuitous.  But there are small details.  On the whole Richard II is a triumph and one of the best Shakespeare films available.
    Next we come to Henry IV - parts 1 & 2.  Led by the stunning performance of Jeremy Irons as King Henry IV and backed by an excellent cast including Tom Hiddleston as Hal and Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff.  Also, Michelle Dockery, of "Downton Abbey" fame, plays Kate Percy, and the actor who plays Hotspur (I could not find his name on IMBD or the BBC sites!) are also quite extraordinary.  I especially liked how this Hotspur was completely focused on war and violence even to the point of disregarding his very beautiful wife (who at one point undresses in front of the messenger who gawks at her, even though her husband doesn't seem to notice at all!)  This has always been the way I read the play, but most performances I have seen have Hotspur melting eventually to his wife's charms - but not this Hotspur - he seems immune to the charms of his wife's beauty and her intense and devoted love! I also loved the performance of Henry Faber as the "good son" John of Lancaster, Hal's younger brother, who orchestrates with Westmorland the trickery that leads to the capture and execution of the rebellion led by the Archbishop of York.  Faber is fresh faced, innocent, charming, disarming, cold-hearted and merciless in that scene!  He is magnificent!  All of the scenes with Jeremy Irons sparkle, especially his confrontations with Hal. Iron's performance is one of the great film performances of any Shakespeare role.  I liked the Eastcheap crowd led by Falstaff.  This Falstaff was a little more smarmy than others I have seen who tended to be more jolly.  But Julie Walters as Mistress Quickly is also outstanding.  I have to say, that in contrast to the theater where my experience is that these scenes can steal the show, for me in the film version they seemed claustrophobic and I was always glad to return to Court or the battlefield.  I should give a shout out to the actor who plays Justice Shallow.  This was a sensitive and moving portrayal of a character who is usually just a joke or the butt of a joke.  I also should say that found it a little disconcerting that the few characters who were in both Richard II and Henry IV were played by different actors.  I would have preferred the same actors to play their roles in the whole series, except when age prevents it.  The exception would be Bollingbrook to King Henry IV - they are drastically different characters.  But I cannot for the life of me understand why they would have replaced the terrific Northumberland from Richard II.  There are some small cuts which are annoying - we never see John of Lancaster saving his father during the battle of Shrewsbury and we do not see why Falstaff is laying as if dead on the ground (he was attacked by Douglas in the play - but not in the film).  Minor cuts true, but kind of needless in my view.
     When we come to Henry V then the cuts take center stage as the number #1 weakness of this film.  The character of Captain Gower is eliminated and all of the banter between him and Fluellen is cut. But the worst cut is the removal of the conspiracy scene.  Olivier cut this scene from the film back when he filmed Henry V during World War II, and then it was a conscious choice for wartime and political reasons.  I am not sure if there were such reasons this time around, but for me it ruins the narrative and turns it into a jingoistic ride to the glorious victory at Agincourt.  I cannot imagine any good reason to cut this scene.  It doesn't take that long and it deepens the narrative.  This is, in my view the single worst thing about this series. On the other hand, I thought turning the boy (Falstaff's page) into the chorus at the end was brilliant.  Even so, sorry to say the battle scene at Agincourt is not as good as the Kenneth Branagh film in my view.  There was certainly more attention paid to historical accuracy in the battle scene in the Branagh film.  They pass over the French murder of the boys at the baggage train with barely a mention, and if you want to really want to understand how it was possible for Henry to win the battle of Agincourt when the odds were so stacked against him you will have to consult another source because you won't get many hints here - except perhaps divine intervention or luck.  The Branagh film devotes enough time to the long bow archers and the field conditions that one can get a better sense of why the French lost this battle.  I enjoyed Tom Hiddleston as Henry, though I liked him better as Hal.  He is a fine actor and I would love to see him do these roles on stage.  Other complaints: I did not like that Henry had no part in the hanging of Bardolph.  The hanging was over by the time Henry finds out about it.  That weakens his character and the play.  I also did not like the delivery of the famous St. Crispen's Day speech for his small group of officers.  It somehow took the power out of the speech. As mentioned above Fluellen is a cipher in this production, and nothing really matters except Agincourt.  Even so, there are fine performances by Catherine of Valois and the Duke of Exeter.  I also enjoyed the performance of the French actor who played Montjoy. (Curious that French actors were cast in most of the French roles, excepting the King - it was rather glaring he and the Dauphin that he was the only French character without a French accent.)
    In conclusion I would say that it is definitely is worth watching and owning this series.  Richard II is the strongest, Henry V is the weakest.  Wikipedia lists this series as "The Hollow Crown, part 1."  Does this mean that we can expect a part 2?  Henry VI, parts 1, 2, 3 to Richard III perhaps?  That would be nice.  But next time, go easy on the cuts please and keep the casts stable from play to play.  It adds to the strength of the production.