Film Review: The Hollow Crown: Richard II
Yet know, my master, God omnipotent, is mustering in his clouds on our behalf
Armies of pestilence; and they shall strike your children yet unborn and unbegot,
That lift your vassal hands against my head and threat the glory of my precious crown.
The defiant leader making a last vain attempt at maintaining their power. In all of history, and in the last 18 months especially, it’s been a familiar sight. It’s this brave and foolish stand that can define any wilting statesmam, be it Hosni Mubarak, Nicolae Ceausescu or even Margaret Thatcher. When an aloof and slightly effeminate King Richard attempts to dissuade his subjects (mainly one Henry Bolingbroke) from deposing him, Shakespeare gave us the iconic swan-song for a soon-to-be-ousted politician.
Produced by Oscar-winner Sam Mendes as part of the Cultural Olympiad, Richard II is part of ‘The Hollow Crown’; an adaptation of the ‘Henriad’. That’s Richard II; Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part 2 and Henry V, in case you were wondering. It’s unknown if Shakespeare planned to have this be the first part of a tetralogy but they represent a continuous period of English history, use recurring characters and include direct references to previous plays. Together they document the rise and fall of a dynasty and they also include some of Shakespeare’s best work.
Rory Kinnear (the unfortunate Prime Minister in part 1 of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror) is the rebellious Henry Bolingbroke, cousin to the King (Ben Whishaw) and, at the start of the play, banished from England. Patrick Stewart plays John of Gaunt, his father, and once he dies (Stewart’s last scene is predictably brilliant) Henry returns to claim his lands. Soon though he begins a plot to overthrow the King and install himself as sovereign.
As with almost any adaptation of Shakespeare it has strong ties to the RSC; Kinnear (left above), Patrick Stewart and James Purefoy (right) are all regulars but it’s Ben Whishaw as the maligned monarch who steals the show. He gives Richard a Michael Jackson edge (a pet monkey crops up) but also a level of sympathetic naivety. He’s petulant at times, but his belief in the Divine Right of Kings is less arrogant and more foolish. As you’d expect from Shakespeare, Bolingbroke is also no comic-book villain, rather a Machiavellian politician who thinks himself worthy of Kingship. Kinnear is suitably British-looking and stout but with an undetectable air of deceit bubbling beneath him. It’s not that he thinks Richard a bad king, more that he thinks he could do it better.
The highlight is the deposition scene itself; Act 4, Scene 1. Bolingbroke wants a public deposition so there can be no doubt who is King but Richard gives an impassioned defense of himself. At the last he still believes that he was chosen to rule by God. He compares himself to Jesus, betrayed not by one Judas, but by an army of 12,000. He begrudgingly gives up the crown but not before souring Henry, and the audience themselves, with embarrassment at the act they’ve been witness to. Whishaw’s Richard II is magnificent; rather than a descent into pettiness, in his last public appearance he is instead more of an overwhelmed boy at first who then somehow finds strength through his tears. His crescendo, the smashing of the mirror (representing his kingship), is genuinely hard to watch.
Richard II is more of a political play than the others in the ‘Henriad’ so it doesn’t suffer from any sure-to-be anaemic battle scenes and at 2 hours 20 minutes doesn’t lag as you’d expect. The language ebbs and flows with each scene, what it lacks in humour and action (especially compared to the forthcoming Henries) it makes up for in political intrigue and questioning of the moral compass in times of treason.
Final Verdict: A brilliant adaptation of Shakespeare, Richard II is not over-long, nor truncated to insignificance. As the first part of a 4 play-long sequence it’s an excellent beginning to the series. The film satisfies on a singular level but also whets the appetite for what’s to come in parts 2, 3 and 4… long live the King.