June 30, 2012, by Peter Kirwan
The Hollow Crown: Richard II @ BBC HD
Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00s90j1
The most exciting element of the BBC’s Shakespeare Unlocked is off to a storming start. Rupert Goold’s film of Richard II, divorced of the gimmickry and attention deficit lack of focus that characterises his stage work (sometimes to wonderful effect, sometimes disastrously) is a slick, subtle, well acted and creative adaptation of a rarely filmed play that manages the tricky feat of providing something that will be of use to educators for years to come, while also matching perfectly the BBC’s current aesthetic requirements for big budget primetime period drama.
Initially, the film looks as if it has borrowed its sets and costume from Merlin, but while it never quite shakes its studio feel in the bulk of the interior scenes (it simply looks a little too clean), the misty exteriors and stunning use of beach locations give this film a sense of breadth, if not scale – the gesture towards a Welsh army is a welcome visual flourish, but these lanscapes are otherwise sparsely populated. The kinetic camerawork, however, keeps attention throughout, and visually this is a varied feast, with Goold digging into his bag of cinematic tricks (flashbacks, slow motion, montage) to fit a wordy play to a fast medium.
With that said, this is a traditional looking film, aiming (with the exception of the BBC’s now-standard colour-blind casting) for period accuracy, including the retention of faintly ridiculous medieval hats. The advantage of the setting is that it creates plausible settings for scenes that might otherwise be hard to imagine, such as the temporary lists set up in a field for Mowbray and Bolingbroke’s duel, or the narrow corridors down which Richard makes his descent, the camera spinning dizzyingly as it evokes Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
Ben Whishaw in the title role is excellent. Softly spoken and high-pitched, Whishaw’s Richard is a gentle king, with undertones (never made explicit) of homosexuality in his lingering touches of male servants in his tent. His extravagances are manifest – a monkey cackles in the temporary tent set up behind the Coventry lists, and he rides to his final arraignment on a miniature pony. He goes through numerous costume changes throughout the film, his pale pinks and yellows contrasting with Bolingbroke’s dark robes. Yet while this Richard is in love with ritual and ceremony, he is frequently out of control; such as the moment in which he pulls Aumerle aside atop the battlements to ask if he has done the right thing, or in his flashes of panic immediately before he halts the opening duel. There is power in him, demonstrated particularly as he shows unexpected prowess against a murderer in his final scene.
Richard is strongest in his uncertainty. The lengthy beach scene, played against a gorgeous Welsh backdrop, gives full weight to a range of characters including Tom Goodman-Hill’s wearied bearer of bad news and Tom Hughes’s painfully young Aumerle, who are led by Richard even in his weakness, drooping alongside him as he sits in the sand. Richard veers from euphoria to rage in an instant, casting Aumerle into the waves on hearing of York’s treachery only seconds after laughing in careless confidence. We get to see less of him in his happy state, but the impression is one of peace; he sits with his retainers, swinging his legs from a country bridge; and after Gaunt’s death, carelessly fingers golden goblets even as York rails at him. Yet he is equally fabulous in his darker moments, as when he stands in golden armour on the battlements in the deposition scene flanked by outlines of angels.
Opposed to him is Rory Kinnear as Bolingbroke, supported by the gruff and deliciously cold David Morrissey as Northumberland (Hotspur is one of the casualties necessary in order to ensure a 2 hours 20 minutes running time). Kinnear’s conflicted, measured antihero is compelling throughout, whether glaring at James Purefoy’s grizzled Mowbray, standing at the back of the invading crowd looking up at Richard or sobbing as he grabbed a handful of sand before marching into the waves to the ship that would carry him to banishment. His attempts to retain control during Richard’s tour de force performance in the arraignment scene (including lying full-length on the floor) will bear multiple rewatched, as king and soldier conflict with cousin and subject in one face. Later, flashbacks of their intimacy continue to haunt him.
I very much feel the series has missed a trick, however, by not cross-casting the roles that continue into the next film. While I’m sure Jeremy Irons and Alun Armstrong will do fantastic jobs as Henry IV and Northumberland, a little grey make-up to Kinnear and Morrissey would surely have done the required work, and I would have loved to see them continue their subtle explorations of the characters. And it would have been an interesting connection to see Hotspur introduced here before stepping up to a major role in the next film.
The other performances are too numerous to discuss in detail, but the quality is consistent throughout. I was particularly moved by David Bradley’s brief appearance – practically a cameo – as the Gardener. While the Northern accent perhaps unnecessarily suggests an attempt at comic relief, what stands out in Bradley’s performance is the haunted look in his eyes as he kneels before the Queen in a carefully topiaried garden and sets her world crumbling about her; in one brief gaze of the camera, we see a synecdoche of the entire human cost of the play’s political shifts. And unsurprisingly, Patrick Stewart is outstanding as Gaunt. The "This sceptr’d isle" speech is performed in close-up, Stewart’s forehead clammy with sweat and his shirt opened. Weak in body but powerful in voice, Gaunt offers a genuine threat to Richard, a threat acknowledged by the King as he grabs the dying man’s lapels and hoists him up in rage. Next to these, David Suchet’s York makes less of an impact, but steadies the film throughout, a voice of at least partial integrity.
My one complaint about the film is that it perhaps takes itself slightly too seriously, particularly in the final betrayal subplot which is played po-faced, losing the inherent comedy of the conflict between the Yorks, and much of the sardonic humour that can be found in the earlier interactions between Richard and his favourites. I confess that, instead, I found the beheadings of Bushy and Green – their heads plunging straight into a river from the bloodied stumps left behind on the bridge – funnier than they were presumably intended to be, the gore contrasting wildly with the cleanness elsewhere. This is compensated for, however, by the intelligent decision to expand Aumerle’s role. Aumerle is approached with the offer of money and status in a tavern, and subsequently joins the murder party who come to Richard. Whishaw languishes in a dank cave, and it is Aumerle who, while Richard struggles with a goon, fires the crossbow that transfixes his former liege. Bolingbroke’s bitterness towards the young man who drags in the coffin completes the scene played ten minutes earlier when Aumerle is granted his reprieve.
Only right at the end does the director make his presence strongly felt. Nobles arrive spilling bags of bloodied heads over the the floor, and the camera cuts to Bolingbroke’s face, sweating as he stammers out thanks. Lucian Msamati’s Carlisle is thrown to the floor, bloodied and barely able to see out of one eye. And when Richard’s coffin is broken open, he is naked except for a loincloth, arms spread as far from the body as the coffin will allow and legs bent together to one side in the traditional crucifixion pose (made unnecessarily explicit by a slow pan up to a hanging crucifix in the eaves). Invited here to reflect on the necessity of Richard’s sacrifice, the audience is left with the impression of sympathy for Richard, even as we reflect on the loss of control that Bolingbroke is already experiencing; a fitting platform to move on to 1 Henry IV.
Interestingly, Derek Jacobi’s documentary on the play which started immediately after this broadcast, started with the same speech as Goold’s film "Let us sit upon the ground". This is, apparently, the play of reflection, and despair. Realised wonderfully here, Goold has reclaimed the play as a modern and fascinating one, which Jacobi pursued in his choice of images of Berlusconi, Hussain and Gaddafi. Jacobi’s documentary (until it got to the De Vere rubbish) was also the best yet of the series in terms of its use of performance history and archives; hopefully, the pairings of new films and documentaries are going to keep providing the richest material. It’s a wonderful contribution to the season, and roll on 1 Henry IV.