Last week, I gave a resoundingly negative review to the BBC’s continuation of The Hollow Crown series. Their rendition of Henry VI, Part 1 was actually an adaptation of Part 1 and Part 2, and cut out over fifty percent of the two plays, and was otherwise just kind of terrible. That didn’t leave me in excessively high hopes for this week’s Henry VI, Part 2, not to be confused with Shakespeare’s play Henry VI, Part 2, because it’s actually an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 3. We’re all on the same page about that, right?
The Hollow Crown: Henry VI, Part 2 (2016)
The Plot: Civil war rages in England as Richard Plantagenet (Adrian Dunbar) makes his move to usurp King Henry VI (Tom Sturridge). That… doesn’t go super well, and Richard doesn’t last long, but his sons Edward (Geoffrey Streatfeild), George (Sam Troughton), and Richard (Benedict Cumberbatch) take up the cause. As Edward comes ever closer to achieving the kingdom, he fails to see the seeds strife within his own court, and Richard begins plotting his bloody ascent to the throne.
Henry VI, Part 3 is one of my top ten favorite Shakespeare plays, as I think I’ve said before. So, naturally, I’m going to scrutinize it horribly. Given how displeased I was with the first installment in this series, I have to admit I entered into this episode with the expectation—even intent—of giving it an unfairly negative review. Somehow or other, though, they really pulled their shit together for this episode. Nah, seriously. It was good. Obviously, no one cared at all about Part 1, and the producers wanted to fast-forward to Cumberbatch as quickly as possible. That kind of irks me, and it’s a lazy, unprofessional way to make a movie, but it worked for Part 2. They get off to a rocky start, since they convert one of those expositional monologues into a visual montage without the dialogue, and nothing really makes much sense, but after that they find their footing. Richard Plantagenet’s death is one of my favorite scenes in all of Shakespeare, and I’d be lying if I said they did it justice. They didn’t, but they tried. I can appreciate that.
So, Act 1 was lacking. What makes the opening act of Shakespeare’s play so effective is the fact that it follows two other plays. This act marks a turning point in the series, and does away with most of the characters we’ve come to love from the first two plays so we can begin to focus on the future Richard III. Of course, this filmic version lacks all of the emotional resonance of the play because we don’t care about all of the characters he kills off in Act 1. We were denied that opportunity in the previous episode. At the start of this episode, I not only didn’t love any of the characters, I actively disliked all of them. As I said, though, once they reestablished themselves with the new Cumberbatch-centric focus, they do better.
Cumberbatch himself gives a perfectly adequate performance. I’m not a great lover of his, and for the most part don’t really get all the hype, but when he’s good, he’s good. Richard’s role in Henry VI is comparatively minor. The focus of Part 3 is more on Henry’s fall and Edward’s rise, with Richard’s developing bloodthirst as a background menace. Cumberbatch does well not to overact or steal his scenes until Richard really comes out of the shadows at the end of the play with his assassination of Henry (545-year old spoiler, I guess). That, incidentally, is my second-favorite death scene in all of Shakespeare and, fortunately for the BBC, they did it justice. It’s about the first thing in the series to which they did do justice. It is perhaps marred by Richard’s fourth-wall-breaking soliloquies. It seems with soliloquies on film, they either have to be voice-overs or spoken directly at the camera, and both irritate me equally. Why can’t people just talk out loud to themselves?
Surprisingly, it’s Tom Sturridge who steals the show. Henry’s a difficult character to play. He’s been king since he was a baby, having never known his father but always lived in his shadow. Since his life as a king began so young, he grew up with the advantages of kingship but without any of the responsibilities. During his childhood, other people ran the kingdom for him. He comes of age at the worst possible time and is totally unprepared and completely out of his element. His reaction is mostly confused panic and a persistent attitude of, “Can’t we all just be friends?” He’s so pathetic, it’s difficult to make him sympathetic, but Sturridge somehow manages to turn him into a tragic figure. I actually felt bad when Richard murdered him.
But he’s dead now, and it’s up to Cumberbatch to run the thing. Will he? I can’t say. I have very specific views on how Richard should be played, but I’ll try my best to be fair. As long as he doesn’t ham it up into one-dimensional cartoonish super-villainy like most people do, I’m sure we’ll get along just fine. Right?