HENRY IV (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 4 hours 1 minute

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

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Directed by: Richard Eyre

Written by: Richard Eyre

(based on the plays HENRY IV Part 1 and HENRY IV Part 2 by William Shakespeare)

Starring: Jeremy Irons, Tom Hiddleston, Simon Russell Beale, Julie Walters, Alun Armstrong, Joe Armstrong, David Bamber & Niamh Cusack

William Shakespeare is regarded as one of the greatest writers in history for many good reasons. This playwright coined tons of new words, reshaped the English language as we know it, and told timeless tales of tragedy, comedy and love. His histories are usually regarded as his less interesting works, but that didn’t stop BBC from creating a series of TV movies titled THE HOLLOW CROWN. Featuring big names like Jeremy Irons, Tom Hiddleston, and Benedict Cumberbatch, this series has invigorated new takes on centuries-old material. Shakespeare was not without a few stinkers in his career (e.g. ANTHONY AND CLEOPATRA) and HENRY IV Parts 1 and 2 are among those. Even with a talented cast and stand-out production values, HENRY IV is a strictly middle-of-the-road affair due to an unfocused narrative…courtesy of William Shakespeare’s original text.

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Decades after dethroning Richard II (seen in the previous HOLLOW CROWN movie), an aging Henry IV (Jeremy Irons) finds himself plagued by a series of problems. Tensions are brewing between Wales and Scotland, all while the noble Percy family plots a rebellion against the king. As if bloody chaos wasn’t enough to upset Henry IV, his son Prince Hal (Tom Hiddleston) has become a drunken belligerent who hangs out in poor taverns amongst the trashier sects of society. Henry IV wishes to bring peace to his country, squash the violent rebellion and prepare his delinquent son for the crown. This is all easier said than done and begins to take a toll on the ailing Henry IV’s health.

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The title of Shakespeare’s play is HENRY IV, but the narrative focuses on every character who isn’t the titular ruler. This means that Jeremy Irons’ terrific performance takes a backseat to everyone else…who all happen to be less interesting characters. The only possible exception is Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal (a.k.a. future Henry V), whose transition from delinquent troublemaker to responsible adult feels a tad rushed and unbelievable. Part of this might be attributed to writer/director Richard Eyre, but I’d say that most of it falls onto Shakespeare’s shoulders. This really isn’t one of his better histories or plays in general and it really shows.

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Back to less interesting characters. HENRY IV’s potentially complex villain is portrayed in a mostly bland way. Hotspur (Joe Armstrong) not only serves as an antagonist towards Henry IV, but also comes off as would-be rival to Prince Hal. We only know about the latter through one powerful speech early on, but that is damn near forgotten by the time Hal and Hotspur actually encounter each other face-to-face. HENRY IV Part 1 is mainly where all of the rebellion stuff comes into play, as these battles are mentioned only during a few passing scenes in Part 2.

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A prominent character in both HENRY IV plays/parts is Falstaff (played by an unrecognizable Simon Russell Beale), who is a pompous oaf and also serves as a bad influence for Prince Hal. This comic relief drunkard is beloved by certain generations of Shakespeare critics, but has rightfully lost a lot of popularity over time. That becomes apparent in this buffoon essentially being Shakespeare’s equivalent of Jar Jar Binks. He’s annoying, aggravating, and got on my nerves during every scene. To make matters even worse, he’s featured in a majority of Parts 1 and 2. Not even the stellar battle sequence is safe from his over-the-top delivery and silly antics. Part 2 sees Falstaff stealing half of the running time in a subplot that’s entirely separated from the rest of the play. It’s safe to say that a majority of HENRY IV’s problems, pacing issues, and dull patches are direct results from Falstaff’s presence.

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Even when he phoned it in, Shakespeare always knew how to entrance the ears with his masterful use of the English language. His dialogue is pure poetry and certain scenes stand out as highlights in an otherwise very tiring viewing experience. The fight between Prince Hal and Hotspur is made even more intense by the battle of insults and threats occurring alongside the swords and shields. One conversation in Part 2 between Hiddleston’s Hal and Irons’ Henry IV is the best scene of the entire movie though as it captures what this whole story should have been about from frame one…and what Shakespeare attempted to do, albeit in a half-assed way.

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As a whole, HENRY IV is one of Shakespeare’s lesser works and this movie adaptation doesn’t do anything particularly special to entice one to watch both parts. There are definitely highlight scenes, amazing lines of dialogue and a great backseat performance from Jeremy Irons. However, the potentially great villain is one-dimensional, far too much time is devoted to horribly annoying comical Falstaff, and the overall experience drags throughout. Unless you’re a diehard Shakespeare fan, I’d say that you’re better off skipping HENRY IV Parts 1 and 2 in THE HOLLOW CROWN series.

Grade: C

MACBETH (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 53 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and brief Sexuality

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Directed by: Justin Kurzel

Written by: Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie & Todd Louiso

(based on the play MACBETH by William Shakespeare)

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, Sean Harris, Jack Reynor, Elizabeth Debicki & David Thewlis

In the vast history of the English language, there has been no figure more influential or important than William Shakespeare. Reaching his popularity in Elizabethan London, Shakespeare penned 38 known plays. Some of these were histories (RICHARD III, HENRY V). Others were comedies (THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE). While these types of plays are great in their own ways, his tragedies have always struck a special place in my heart. Always revolving around one person’s downward (involving politics in CORIOLANUS, brought on by revenge in TITUS, etc.), these plays stand out as powerful works that function on both a primal level through their decidedly depressing emotions and on more sophisticated ground given the eloquent dialogue and complex characters. MACBETH, one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, has been adapted onto the stage and screen many times. With his second feature, director Justin Kurzel has impressively crafted what could very well go down as the definitive cinematic version of the “Scottish Play.”

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Macbeth is a Scottish general fighting for King Duncan in a violent civil war. After winning a particularly bloody battle, Macbeth and Banquo (his best friend and fellow general) come across a congregation of witches. These weird sisters prophesy that Macbeth will be crowned king. Initially writing off the strange premonition as the ramblings of some crazy women, Macbeth soon finds himself with an opportunity to dine with King Duncan. Spurred on by the urging of his cunning wife, Macbeth murders the Duncan and is crowned King of Scotland. Lady Macbeth starts to regret their evil deed, Macbeth slips slowly into madness, and a rebellion is beginning to brew in the countryside.

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The key to any good Shakespeare adaptation usually comes in the form of great performances. While there’s so much more to address in this movie, I need to praise the performers who perfectly encapsulate the complex cast of characters. Michael Fassbender easily brings the title tragic hero to life through stellar line delivery and little physical tics. Fassbender’s Macbeth isn’t simply a mad tyrant rising to power. He’s also a traumatized soldier and a father dealing with the untimely loss of his child. Paddy Considine is instantly likable as Banquo, while Sean Harris channels a quiet rage as Macduff. Though he doesn’t have a huge role, David Thewlis makes a strong impression as King Duncan. The real show-stopper is Marion Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth. She’s remarkably unsympathetic in the first half of the film and then gradually earns some unexpected (and probably undeserved) sympathy from the viewer as the story moves forward.

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In any cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare, obvious changes need to be made in translating the original play onto film. What works on the stage won’t always work on the screen. Compacting Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy into a two-hour film leaves room for every important scene, but there are unconventional decisions in regards to how these moments are executed. The only major changes involving characters are there being more than three witches, only two assassins, and King Duncan having one son (as opposed to two). These are minor moves when you take into consideration how some of the play’s most famous speeches play out as well as a couple of dialogue-free sequences that add extra context to the characters. The Dagger speech is brilliantly translated with an addition that brings more weight to the words being spoken. Instead of following the play’s conclusion in a traditional way, a lot of ballsy decisions are made in the final 30 minutes of this film that somehow make Act V far more powerful than one could have possibly hoped for.

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On the technical side of things, the film is absolutely gorgeous. Every single frame looks beautiful. The fog-laden locations, elaborate sets, and convincing costumes are all aided by a soundtrack that sounds very appropriate to the time period of the story. As if the performances and unconventional choices weren’t doing enough to capture the melancholy tone of Shakespeare’s tragedy, these technical touches are icing on the bloody cake. It should also be noted that this is definitely one Shakespeare film that won’t be shown in many high school classrooms. The R rating is earned for graphic violence and two surprisingly sexual moments that fit perfectly into the context of the story. The former is demonstrated through a variety of scenes including a brutal finale that had me wincing. The latter comes from two sequences between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

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MACBETH is everything that I could have possibly hoped it would be and more. Unexpected twists on the often-visited Shakespeare tragedy make this interpretation stick out among its stiff competition. The performances are amazing, with Marion Cotillard being the best of the bunch. Stunning visuals, a beautiful soundtrack, and mature R-rated sensibilities only make it that much better. 2015’s MACBETH is as perfect as Shakespeare can be on the big screen.

Grade: A+

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (1998)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 3 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sexuality

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Directed by: John Madden

Written by: Marc Norman & Tom Stoppard

Starring: Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth, Ben Affleck, Judi Dench, Simon Callow, Imelda Staunton & Tom Wilkinson

I’ll address the elephant in the room first. A lot of people feel that SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE stole the 1998’s Academy Award for Best Picture away from SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, thus some backlash has generated against this film (similar to backlash that’s generated against TITANIC and FORREST GUMP). While I definitely don’t think that everyone will enjoy SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, I will say that it enraptured me from the first frame and was a hugely entertaining experience as a whole. I imagine that the film will work a similar spell upon fans of Shakespeare’s work and 16th century period dramas. The film is a romantic comedy that succeeds in being more than just a stereotypical chick flick (though it does contain a few well-worn clichés), but rather a beautiful love story featuring one of history’s most famous influential writers.

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The year is 1593 and William Shakespeare is a struggling playwright trying to make his way in London. Though he has a way with words, Shakespeare is encountering a particularly nasty bit of writer’s block as he tries to construct a new comedy (titled ROMEO AND ETHEL, THE PIRATE’S DAUGHTER). Through a few passing circumstances, Romeo finds a muse in the lovely Viola de Lesseps, a royal woman with a penchant for plays. In a forbidden friendship and secret romance, Shakespeare constructs his most famous play. We see how inspiration, tragedy, and timeless love hits William as his relationship with Viola evolves.

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SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE was shot on a budget of 25 million and that seems nearly impossible given the film’s sheer beauty, attention to detail, and elaborate costumes on display. The Elizabethan setting comes to colorful and dank life (depending on the scene) as every piece of jewelry and grimy smudge of dirt shines on the camera. Not once, does it ever appear that this film was shot on a sound stage. Instead, it makes me question as to whether director John Madden used a time machine to shoot this film in 16th century London. It looks that friggin’ good. The spectacle alone is worth watching, but that’s far from the most enjoyable aspect of this film.

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The cast includes many big names (some of whom weren’t nearly as famous as they are today). Joseph Fiennes is perfectly cast as William Shakespeare and exudes the kind of eccentricity that one would assume the brilliant playwright had on a daily basis. Gwyneth Paltrow is great as Viola. Though the character was invented purely for the purposes of this film, I couldn’t help but see her as one of those rare nobles with a deep appreciation for the theatre. Colin Firth is fantastic as a pompous jerk with his eye on Viola. Though he’s in a small role, Ben Affleck is enjoyable as an actor who takes his craft very seriously. Imelda Staunton and Geoffrey Rush serve as two very different types of over-the-top characters. While Rush is a grimy theatre owner, Staunton serves as Viola’s kindly nurse. Tom Wilkinson has an enjoyable part as a thuggish brute who slowly develops an appreciation for theatre over the course of the film. Finally, Judi Dench is phenomenal as Queen Elizabeth and seems born to play the role.

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The screenplay isn’t immune from common tropes that show up in every romantic comedy. These mainly include problems that stand in the way of Shakespeare and Viola’s true feelings for each other as well as an ending that probably got more than a few people to cry in the theater. I also didn’t buy one of the sillier sequences that really stretched plausibility midway through. However, SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE feels very much like one of Shakespeare’s comedies that happens to star the playwright and other historical figures. In that sense, it’s truly a brilliant film. I especially enjoyed the use of Christopher Marlowe (another acclaimed playwright who lived during the Elizabethan era). The plot itself weaves elements of both ROMEO & JULIET (obviously) and TWELFTH NIGHT into a love story that feels familiar, but beautiful and touching all the same.

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SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE is a cinematic treat for those who adore the bard’s work or enjoy romantic comedies in general. This is definitely not your average “chick flick,” though it has some familiar clichés. Instead, the film is a very clever, well-crafted love story about a real-life writer who penned clever, well-crafted love stories among other brilliant plays. The performances are outstanding from everyone involved. The period details are fantastic. The movie has impeccable comedic timing and a genuine heart behind all of the emotions on display. This might be an obvious way of stating it, but SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE is a creation worth loving.

Grade: A-

RICHARD II (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 28 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Grade: B+

OTHELLO (1995)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 3 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Sexuality

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Directed by: Oliver Parker

Written by: Oliver Parker

(based on the play OTHELLO by William Shakespeare)

Starring: Laurence Fishburne, Irene Jacob, Kenneth Branagh, Nathaniel Parker, Michael Maloney & Anna Patrick

OTHELLO is by-the-numbers Shakespeare tragedy in many ways. There’s the naïve protagonist with no idea of the sadness that the future holds for him, the diabolical villain who breaks the fourth wall to explain his deeds to the audience, those unlucky victims who get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and acts of bloody revenge. When held next to most other Shakespeare tragedies, OTHELLO pales in comparison. This makes this 1995 film adaptation that much more impressive in turning a lesser tragedy into a good movie that’s enjoyable for those who might not necessarily care for the play.

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Othello is a Moorish general known for his great deeds in the battlefield. Though the color of his skin brings prejudice from the very country that he’s fighting for, Othello has fallen in love with a Senator’s daughter, Desdemona, and the two secretly wed. This development pisses off Rodrigo, a gentleman who also desired Desdemona, and opens the door for revenge from the villainous Iago. Iago was passed up on a promotion from Othello for another man named Cassio. Thus, Iago manipulates everyone around him to his advantage and convinces Othello that Desdemona might be unfaithful. These ideas planted in Othello’s head and Iago’s need to keep his true intentions secret can only lead to a depressing demise for nearly everyone involved.

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There are two main performances that stand out in OTHELLO. The first being a young Laurence Fishburne as the title character. Infusing a bit of an accent and never once faltering from professional delivery, Fishburne proves himself to be an exceptional Shakespearean level actor. His performance as the inherently good, but easily misled Othello is of such high quality that it makes me wonder how he might have played Aaron the Moor (a villain) in TITUS ANDRONICUS. The best actor/character of the entire film is given to Kenneth Branagh as Iago. At this point in his career, Branagh had directed and performed in multiple Shakespeare productions. In OTHELLO, he’s strictly performing and milks the wickedness of Iago for everything that it’s worth. His villain can fake any kind, worried, or nervous emotions as needed for his sinister desires. Every other cast member and side character is absolutely forgettable though. This sadly includes Desdemona, Othello’s wife, who the viewer should feel some shred of sympathy for. Irene Jacob is just plain bland in her role.

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Given the iffy source material, director/writer Oliver Parker adapts OTHELLO with style. While one of his choices doesn’t necessarily work (more on that in a moment), the production values are high. The soundtrack also provides enough momentum to enhance the feeling of the more exciting scenes. Certain pieces of dialogue are incorporated by Iago looking into the camera (at the viewer) or a voice over going through his head as an event plays out in front of him. One interesting addition is that this doesn’t exclusively stay on the character of Iago. As his plan moves forward, a paranoid Othello also addresses the audience and develops an inner monologue as well.

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The biggest problems with OTHELLO come from the original play and in Parker’s choice to use excessive sexuality. The plot is predictable, way too predictable. Shakespeare usually threw some sort of irony or twist into his work, whether they be tragedies, comedies, romances or even histories. This is not the case with OTHELLO. It plays out in the most straight-forward and simple sense possible. You know where things are heading from the very start and this makes a longer running time seem like a tad too much! We need to sit through Acts I-IV in which Iago uses those around him and a couple of people die in order to receive the so-so payoff in Act V. Parker tries to spice things up with a handful of sex scenes. These became way too excessive as well and play as an excuse for a quick flash of nudity, including one laughable dream sequence to hammer in a point that every capable viewer should already know.

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The plot of OTHELLO is alright at best, but that’s true of the original play as well. The sex scenes are upped to a silly degree and most of the characters are completely forgettable. This being said, Laurence Fishburne is more than capable as Othello and Kenneth Branagh kills it (literally in a couple of scenes) as Iago. The fourth wall breaking and inner monologues are a nice creative touch, especially when Branagh is mugging in front of the camera. Production values are solid as well. Altogether, the good qualities far outweigh the bad. OTHELLO is a good adaptation of Shakespeare’s phoned-in tragedy.

Grade: B

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