Well, it has been a wild ride. Henry VI, Part 1 was—for lack of a better word—horrible. Yeah, horrible pretty much sums it up. Henry VI, Part 2 was pretty good. It certainly did a lot despite the terrible groundwork provided by Part 1, and it gave me hope for this week’s rendition of Richard III. Full disclaimer: Richard III is probably my favorite Shakespeare play. Some of my criticism has been colored by that fact. Most of it hasn’t.
The Hollow Crown: Richard III (2016)
The Plot: With his brother Edward (Geoffrey Streatfeild) on the throne, the dastardly Duke of Gloucester Richard (Benedict Cumberbatch) begins to set his plan for advancement in motion. It’s sneaky. It’s clever. It keeps a relatively small body count (he only murders, like, ten or eleven people). But madness, a guilty conscience, and political enemies just might bring about Richard’s undoing and leave him buried under a carpark in Leicester.
The final installment of the BBC’s seven-part Hollow Crown series really blows. It clocks in at a hundred and thirty minutes of agonizing tedium and self-indulgence. Adaptors Dominic Cooke and Ben Power didn’t try at all in the first movie, and sort of tried a bit in the second one, but then put all of their effort into Richard III. That’s three movies of effort squashed into one. That’s 300% of the required effort. The end result is an overpoweringly, ostentatiously deliberate wander through history. At some point during the production, someone circled the word “symbolism” in a dictionary and mailed it to Cooke, and he read it and thought to himself, “Hey, that sounds like a great idea! I’ll come up with three or four of the most irritatingly obvious motifs imaginable and just beat my audience to death with them. This is going to be magnificent.” I’m sure the IMDb quote page will corroborate this statement.
Amid all the wanton IMAGERY, the only other thing they paid attention to was the plot. I think they read the four plays and thought to themselves, “Boy howdy, this is complicated. Let’s just focus on the plot and try to make it as clear as possible” (IMDb quote page). Yeah, it’s a bit complicated. How many mysteries and thrillers have you seen and loved despite not having a clue about what happened in the whole thing? Most mysteries and thrillers are like that, and the reason you don’t care about the confusion is because you do care about the characters. Well, The Hollow Crown opts to clarify the plot at the expense of its characters, perhaps hoping the actors will take care of that for them. Well… they don’t.
Cumberbatch’s performance is almost as melodramatic and self-indulgent as Cooke’s direction. He’s so committed to acting as loudly as he possibly can, that he fails to produce any semblance of depth in his wayward king. His Richard falls into the endless droves of utterly forgettable, one-dimensional, sociopathic caricatures that have come before him. I don’t know why everyone insists on playing a flat Richard, but they do. There’s supposed to be a real sense of tragedy about this murderer. He’s been treated like dirt his entire life because he was born a hunchback, and then the civil war broke out and he proved himself on the battlefield. He was really good at fighting, so during the war his family started treating him with the respect he always desired and always deserved. The war ended and they went back to treating him like crap again. He’s lost his compassion for humanity, and is tired of it all. But the crown is only a few steps away from him. If he were King of England, people would have to respect him. They couldn’t tease him or mock him anymore, and all he has to do to ensure that is kill the people who’ve bullied him his whole life. Doesn’t sound so bad, does it? In the process, of course, he ends up becoming the thing that everyone always told him he was: evil, and he realizes it in the end, but too late to repent. Cumberbatch isn’t interested in any of this. The words “why” and “because” never occurred to him, Cooke, or Power during this whole process, and the result is typical.
Well, we’ll always have the first series, eh? This made me think back on Henry IV, Part 1, and I remembered just how good Tom Hiddleston and Simon Russell Beale were in that production. They brought such depth and care to those characters, something the cast of the second series completely failed to do, if they ever even tried.