Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 28 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Directed by: Rupert Goold
Written by: Rupert Goold & Ben Power
(based on the play RICHARD II by William Shakespeare)
Starring: Ben Whishaw, Patrick Stewart, James Purefoy, David Morrissey, Rory Kinnear, David Suchet, Tom Hughes & Clemence Poesy
Previous reviews on this site might reveal that I’m a big fan of Shakespeare. The HOLLOW CROWN series of films had been kicking around on my radar for quite some time. I sort of skipped past them for one main reason. Out of all Shakespeare’s works, I feel that his history plays are some of his weakest. After all, Shakespeare is known for writing long stories of bloodshed and despair (in his tragedies) as well as big laughs and hilarious misunderstandings (in his comedies). Histories seem to be the ultimate appeal to high-brow crowds of Shakespeare’s time, sort of like how obvious Oscar bait movies are obviously…well, Oscar bait and aimed at current viewers. Who knows how well they will hold up over time? That doesn’t necessarily make Oscar bait or Shakespeare’s histories into bad stories, but it does put a slight damper on them when the competition promises original stories that will take us to crazy places.
Richard II enjoys his high-maintenance kingly lifestyle. He’s a cocky ruler with a pompous ego and does immoral things to get what he wants. One day, Richard is presented with a dispute between two royals and in a hasteful decision decides to let the two men, Thomas Mowbray and Henry Bolingbroke, duke it out in a joust. However, in an even more poorly made last-minute decision, Richard cancels the joust and sentences both men to banishment (Henry for six years and Thomas indefinitely). This proves to be a dire mistake as Richard II becomes notorious among his countryman, especially after stealing away property and wealth from Henry’s newly deceased father. An uprising is coming. The pompous Richard has always appreciated the position of power, but neglected the actual responsibility that came with it. We watch as one king falls and another rises in his place.
Proper adaptations of Shakespeare have always demanded ridiculously huge expectations for performers involved. HOLLOW CROWN’s first TV movie carries a remarkably strong cast. Each actor elegantly brings their roles to life in what feels like Shakespeare crossed with a slightly less violent version of GAME OF THRONES. Ben Whishaw elegantly carries the title character as a corrupt, villainous scoundrel who in time regrets his poor decisions and fears for his life. Whishaw’s line delivery is impeccable and lends a sense of brief comic timing during a couple of moments. A great example of this arrives when John of Gaunt (played by a brief, but strong-as-ever Patrick Stewart) dies. Richard (who has strongly disliked John) makes a seemingly sincere pause of emotion, before changing his tone completely (“So long for that”) and jumping immediately into seizing John’s possessions. The rest of the cast includes Rory Kinnear as the rising Henry, David Morrissey as a Duke fed up with Henry’s ways, and an all-too-briefly glimpsed James Purefoy.
For a made-for-TV movie, RICHARD II certainly boasts higher production values than one might expect. Attention to detail has been given to every set and location. Stunning beauty can be studied in each of the period-accurate (one could assume) costumes. The cinematography makes this look like something that might have played in theaters (for a majority of the running time, anyway). Occasionally, a couple of technical flaws can be spotted. These mainly come in the camera work during the scenes where Richard confronts his traitorous countrymen. However, these are few and far between. This adaptation also gets graphically violent with one painfully sustained death scene as well as plenty of severed heads to go around. This isn’t one of Shakespeare’s most interesting plays. The pacing can drag, even for a slightly condensed take on the source material. All that being said, the bard’s words and dialogue still shine with a power that few can match. Great speech after great speech are what mainly make this film worth watching and these words are further boosted by great performances and professional production values.
RICHARD II is not exactly Shakespeare’s best work. It’s not even his best history play (RICHARD III takes that title for me). However, HOLLOW CROWN’s production of it is certainly worth watching for fans of the bard. Somehow, I found myself shocked at how beautifully written and profound this dialogue still remains over four centuries later. This movie is a long one (running over two hours with a couple of patches that drag) and it has spots that show the signs of a made-for-TV film (though most of the scenes might convince you that this should have played in theaters). Great performances, attention to detail, and nice period setting ensure that RICHARD II is an enjoyably powerful adaptation.