The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses
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These three screen adaptations, Henry VI in two parts and Richard III, tell the story of The Wars of the Roses, an exceptionally turbulent period in British history. Shakespeare's plays are filmed in the visually breathtaking landscape and architecture of the period. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Hugh Bonneville, Judi Dench, Michael Gambon, Sally Hawkins, Sophie Okonedo & Tom Sturridge, these exhilarating and emotionally charged films feature some of Shakespeare's most eloquent and powerful language.
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Here we have three films rather than the four of the first series. The tag-line to this second series is ‘The Wars of the Roses’ as the films chronicle the conflict between the houses of Lancaster and York as they fought for the English crown between 1455 and 1485, culminating with the death of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth, the end of the Yorkist dynasty and the dawn of the Tudor Age.
Here Shakespeare’s three parts of ‘Henry VI’ are pruned down into two films called ‘Part 1’ and ‘Part 2’. These are not identical to the plays so titled, but are basically parts 2 & 3 with an abbreviated part 1 (about the loss of territories in France won by Henry V) slotted into the first film. The difficult role of the weak, vacillating and unworldly Henry VI is here played to perfection by Tom Sturridge, who like Ben Wishaw’s excellent performance as Richard II in the first series makes the character of the young King both pitiable and sympathetic, whilst here Sturridge’s Henry VI is revealed as a fish out of water, completely unsuitable for kingship in the violent and bloody Middle Ages. His adulterous French-born queen Margaret is played superbly by Sophie Okonedo (with no trace of a French accent!), who brings strength of character, ruthlessness and vindictiveness to the role of this warrior-queen.
Caution: some of the battle scenes portrayed in these plays are realistic to the point of being R-rated, as heads and limbs are severed and rivers of blood flow. The filmmakers’ decision to pull no punches when portraying these scenes can be questioned: while they hold the attention and convey the brutality of the time they are not for the squeamish or easily traumatised. Swords and axes cut into flesh and bone, severed heads are hoisted on pikes, people squirm as they are hanged from trees in the open and Joan of Arc screams as she is burned at the stake. You have been warned!
In the concluding film of the series Benedict Cumberbatch turns in an outstanding performance as Richard III, complete with scenes of his scoliosis skeletal deformity created by a convincing prosthesis. The running time of this play – one of Shakespeare’s greatest - has been halved and the necessary editing may not be to the taste of the purist, as many witty asides in the original text from Richard to the audience have been excised to serve the needs of brevity. But Cumberbatch’s performance as Shakespeare’s malignant usurper-king is nevertheless seriously impressive, conveying all the malevolence, intelligence and ruthlessness with few redeeming features.
As with the first series, the production is lavish. Fabulous costumes and sympathetic use of contemporary interiors (many in surviving buildings from the Middle Ages) are juxtaposed with epic landscapes in England and France, offering a rich theatrical experience which at the same time is magnificently cinematic.
This first class drama is a triumph for the BBC production team and has raised the bar for all future performances of these difficult plays on stage and screen. Unconditionally recommended.