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I just finished watching the first film, Richard II, in The Hollow Crown series. And it was magnificent! Directed by Rupert Goold with Ben Whishaw as Richard II and Patrick Stewart, Rory Kinnear, David Morrissey and David Suchet.

The visual style was mesmerizing to the point of being hypnotic. They took full advantage of film as a medium. The lavish beauty of some scenes and deep darkness of others was made possible by superb cinematography.

But the best part of the film is the acting. Ben Whishaw plays Richard II as a man out of his depth. The king is a delicate man, fretful and peevish, with graceful movements and a high voice. He struggles to maintain the appearance of authority, but it’s quite clear that no one really listens to him. And no wonder. He’s surrounded by the likes of the charismatic John of Gaunt (Patrick Stewart) and the tough, masculine Henry Bolingbroke (Rory Kinnear). From the beginning it is clear that he cannot control these men, and when he tries, he bring about his own downfall.

Patrick Stewart looking gaunt as John of Gaunt

I don’t think I spoil anything by saying that in trying to resolve a dispute between Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray, King Richard ends up banishing them both, setting in motion a chain of events that would bring Bolingbroke back from banishment, deposit Richard and take his crown.

Rory Kinnear as the reluctant rebel Henry Bolingbroke

Rory Kinnear is a strong, loyal and passionate Henry Bolingbroke. He is dutiful subject to the king and a loving son to his father. It feels like he becomes a rebel despite himself. He comes back to claim his land after exile and realizes that he can be king. Of course, he has to live with the consequences of his actions – deposition of the rightful, if inadequate, king. His performance is subtle and understated, and when the script doesn’t give him lines, he still manages to carry the emotion.

Clémence Poésy as Queen Isabella

The rest of the cast is equally impressive. Patrick Stewart makes a great  John of Gaunt, going from a happy lord and father to a sick and angry old man. David Suchet plays the Duke of York who switches sides so often that his sense of loyalty overgrows to the point where he is willing to denounce his son for treason to a king who came to power through treason. Two wrongs do make a right, apparently.  Clémence Poésy is Queen Isabella and is given very little to do or say. For most of the movie she is either crying or looking despondent. But I suppose that’s all Shakespeare gave her. Though the last scene between her and the king is very touching.

Watching the scenes with the deposed Richard, as he tries to come to terms with his downfall, is heart-rending. Whishaw’s performance is flawless. His struggle and pain seem very real. And  even though most of us cannot imagine what it would feel like to be a deposed king, we still feel for him. Despite not being very likable, he is still very sympathetic, possibly because of his extreme vulnerability and loneliness.

Richard learns humanity the hard way

There is a lot of religious symbolism in the film. Richard is compared to both Christ (especially when he is taken to the new king’s court in white robes riding on a white horse) and to St Sebastian (when he is pierced by arrows). This is surprising, since Richard is no saint.  He is set up to be selfish, petulant and capricious. I suppose it could be a metaphor for his gaining humanity through suffering. He dies a better man than he ever was as a king.

If you haven’t seen The Hollow Crown: Richard II yet, go and do so now. The film is visually beautiful, the acting is superb and the language flows like a symphony of words.

The next installment, Henry IV part 1, comes out on Saturday, July 7th.

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