A mini-series of adaptations, depicting Shakespeare’s history plays: Henry VI Part I & Part II and Richard III.
A BBC live-action portrayal of one of England’s most brutal and turbulent times in the country’s history. This is a story of romance, lust, temptation, betrayal and murder. The Hollow Crown is told through the eyes of many players including: Elizabeth Woodville (Keeley Hawes), Richard Of Gloucester/Richard III (Benedict Cumberbatch), Richard Plantagenet/Richard Of York (Adrian Dunbar), Margaret D’Anjou (Sophie Okenedo), King Louis XI Of France (Andrew Scott), Lord Clifford (Kyle Soller), Richard Neville AKA The Kingmaker (Stanley Townsend), Edward IV (Geoffrey Streatfield) and Cecily, Duchess Of York (Dame Judi Dench) to name a few. In their quests for power, they will put who they think deserves to be on the throne through allegiances but also via the darkness of manipulation and seduction.
In 1464, before the Tudor dynasty, there’s been a war ravaging England about who should sit the English throne. Richard Plantagenet is killed after trying to get the throne so then the mantle is passed to his firstborn son, Edward, Earl Of March. It is a brutal dispute over two sides of the same family, the House Of York and the House Lancaster. York’s youthful and handsome Edward IV is anointed and crowned King Of England with the help of master deceiver, Lord Warwick (Townsend). This occurs after their victory at The Battle Of Northampton. When Edward falls in love with Elizabeth Woodville (Hawes), Warwick’s plan to control the English throne comes tumbling down like a house of cards. Then we have a brutal and entertaining story of war, power-plays, love and political intrigue.
The season one quadology of episodes in BBC Two’s thespian bonanza epic, The Hollow Crown, showed us the fall of the weak and spineless Richard II and the rise of Henry V. It blended the older generation of classic actors such as Jeremy Irons (The Borgias), Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: The Next Generation) and David Bradley (Game Of Thrones) with a new breed of actors like Tom Hiddleston (The Night Manager), Rory Kinnear (Penny Dreadful), Ben Whishaw (Spectre) and Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey). All these actors know not only how to act on stage but to act on camera as well, and brought a little of their own bravado to their respective roles.
The season premiere (Henry VI Part I) gives the season a tremendous start. With long hair, pouty lips and an innocent voice, Tom Sturridge was a masterclass casting decision as the hopeless adolescent youth, Henry, who was freed of his power by his loyal protector, the Duke of Gloucester, played by Robert Crawley AKA Hugh Bonneville, with such quality and decorum in court where every player is looking for power to feed their own selfish ambitions.
Broken England is clawing to reclaim lost lands as we saw with the revelation of Joan Of Arc (Laura Frances-Morgan) when she was cursing every Englishman under the sun followed by dark death scene ending with a Lex Luthor-esque shaved head and subsequently being lit up like Christmas tree. It’s no secret that shows like these are often compared to Game Of Thrones. Most forgetting the fact that the events in such historical dramas have far superseded the publication of George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice & Fire. That being said, The War Of The Five Kings is pretty much a mirror of The Wars Of The Roses, give or take, and add some creative license to George R.R. Martin. Furthermore, I think The Hollow Crown is more akin to the likes of Last Kingdom, Wolf Hall or The Tudors than Game Of Thrones in terms of how its made. It seems now that HBO’s critically acclaimed fantasy series is the gold standard that all historical shows should be aspire to replicate. Not on my watch.
This BBC historical drama doesn’t pull any punches from brutal acts of violence to lust-filled sex scenes. So in that regard, it is like Game Of Thrones, let’s not forget that moments of bad language. Another comparison to Game Of Thrones, is its ability to attract audiences like a magnet. This series wallows in violence like it’s some kind of hobby or sport. It has many a sex scene but not as frequent to the likes of The Tudors. There were many scenes between Margaret Of Anjou (Okonedo) and Somerset (Ben Miles) that would rival Cersei and Jaime Lannister, while Gloucester (Bonneville) is brutally murdered in his cell. Martin himself, has said that he took inspiration from this part of history. Shakespeare was no stranger to controversy when he used the rumours of Margaret having affairs with both Suffolk and Somerset in his plays. She could have been fucking Kettleback and Moonboy for all you know.
Every scene Okonedo is in, she steals. When she walks in, the whole room goes quiet and that’s due to her remarkable screen presence. She was a political player alongside the awesome Ben Miles as Somerset, who together, ousted Bonneville’s Gloucester. Theatrical thespian nitpickers will complain at the amount of lines left out and the combining of characters to create a simple story for people of all ages. This is the 21st century and I tell those people to suck it up. The BBC have done a fine job without modernising it too much, using their creative license to a fine degree indeed.
Henry VI Part II, ushers in the sons of York with George, Edward and Richard (Cumberbatch). We see the events that predate the Wars Of The Roses and those events link together to become the Wars Of The Roses. This civil war is where two sides of the same family fought for the crown. Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) delivers scene-stealing performance after scene-stealing performance. Cumberbatch as Richard III is haunting. The hunchbacked royal is that childhood monster in the closet that you’d tell your parents about but they’d never believe you.
The story of this 100 years+ arc of a family feud between the Yorkists and Lancastrians is brought into an intriguing and spellbinding focus by Ben Power’s adaptation. By the end of the first film and even into the second film, much blood has been shed and the aura of this hell on earth comes to haunt the crooked cripple, Richard Plantagenet’s third son, Richard (Cumberbatch). Richard only has a small part in second movie, a supporting player so to speak. He has a small role but every scene he’s in, he owns.
Young Richard is a silent observer to the harrowing murder of his little brother at the hands of Lancastrians. This is the beginning of his story, which we see turns him into murder-obsessed malicious monarch. The closer he gets to the crown, the more violent he becomes. His story is psychopathy at its best, if best is even the right word to use. Adding to his madness, he tells us (the audience) his darkest thoughts, looking directly at the camera. He looks at us without fear or forethought, spilling his guts about what vicious deed he will do next. Who is he going to kill or torture? Who’s next on his platter, to dice up and feed to their maker? He held his nephew, Ed’s newborn son, and says “I can murder when I smile.” He makes Frank Underwood look like a choir boy. Benedict Cumberbatch breaks the fourth wall like a pro, even if he is psychopathic killer.
As with many historical dramas, this series has every British actor from every British drama that you can never remember the name of. Some such as Anton Lesser (Game Of Thrones, Wolf Hall) and Samuel West (Mr Selfridge, Suffragete) in addition to Bonneville (Downton Abbey) and Keeley Hawes (Ashes To Ashes). One of the main standout performances is Sophie Okonedo (The Slap) who plays a brutal badass as Margaret D’Anjou. She is no stranger to dishing at a bitchslap or two at Sally Hawkin’s Duchess Of Gloucester, which I found heartily amusing.
The British thespian community will continue to talk about The Hollow Crown whilst this country tears itself apart from the inside among the aura of post-Brexit hysteria. But for the despair over Britishness, this series is a study of politics, power and sovereignty as well as a look at British culture and royal ideologies. Even now, The Wars Of The Roses have had a long-lasting impact on this country today, not to forget to mention the amount of royalists there are among us.
In Richard III, Benedict Cumberbatch is centre stage and he steals every scene he is in. From Sherlock to Smaug (The Hobbit) to Alan Turing (The Imitation Game) and most recently Hamlet at the National Theatre, Cumberbatch will continue to grace our screens with his enigmatic presence. Richard III is one more role to add to his roster of awesome characters. He also starred with Johnny Depp in Black Mass . The man is on a role and he’s not going to stop any time soon as he’s set to play Shere Khan in Warner Bros’ Jungle Book (2018) and Stephen Strange in Marvel’s Doctor Strange, come the Fall.
Benedict Cumberbatch as the hunchbacked Richard III is the stuff of nightmares. He plays this hunched psychopath with such vigour and confidence to the point that I was afraid I would never see daylight again. That’s the power of method acting. Method actors get into the role to the point, that you think “are they acting or aren’t they?” The second cycle of The Hollow Crown continues where the first left off and I think it equaled its predecessor. All in all, a wonderful season, and yet again, it shows that the concept of power is a hollow shell, unless you have the tact to take it.
Hollow Crown has finished and now comes the winter of our discontent