Richard II: The Problems with Leadership and the Road to It

…can be seen in all in all of Shakespeare’s history plays and tragedies. To begin with, a country that has a corrupt or weak king (R II on both counts) will have great civil unrest (much as in the case of you-know-who south-of-the-border these daze).

Richard is one of Shakespeare’s most egotistical kings excessively preoccupied with himself, forever psychoanalyzing whatever role he is playing. Like the T-word, he is simply not interested in others except as they aid his agendas (e.g., confiscating the loyal John of Gaunt’s estate). As one of my profs pointed out, he is perpetually concerned with his role and performances; hence, all the acting imagery and the theatrical ways in which he refers to himself. This is not someone who has his country’s best interests at heart; instead, someone who is fickle, frivolous, vain, silly, whimsical, and blind to the destruction and ruin he brings to England and far more worthier folk than himself.

Universal’s The Hollow Crown DVD series co-produced by Sam Mendes picks up where Branagh’s Henry V left off. But instead of an amazing studio set complete with Agincourt’s battlefield, Richard II’s director Rupert Gould opens this play up to Nature and the outdoors. There is one fantastic scene on a widescreen beach when Richard returns from Ireland that epitomizes this fuller, less cramped, limited approach to adaptation.

Like Branagh, Gould’s direction lingers close-uply on individual characters and their speeches, though cutting and interesting cinematography choices (e.g., the hollow crown’s or mirror’s views of Richard and Henry from the floor) take this movie beyond Branagh’s simpler, basic camera-work. Gould also gives the viewer a rich, colorful version of Richard II that rivals any theatre movie. Shakespeare fans will be satisfied with Gould’s sensitive handling of language and the play’s original classic scenes and speeches.

The acting is outstanding. Ben Whishaw is presented as an effete, childish Christ-figure in appearance and action. He is also compared to Saint Sebastian, someone he views as a fellow victim from history, someone whom Richard ends up emulating quite literally. There are also clever, associated references to Judas and Pilots in the text. Whishaw gives one of the strongest performances of confusion and weakness I’ve ever seen in film.
Patrick Stewart makes a very strong John of Gaunt and David Suchet does likewise as York. Rory Kinnear gives a remarkable portrait of restraint as Henry Bolingbroke to round out the supporting cast.

I would have no problem giving this adaptation a 9/10, given how much it brings the play to life for a modern audience. At least up to the point when Richard is removed from the court after surrendering the crown.

But this is a Shakespeare play, like Macbeth and Titus Andronicus which is about blood and its shedding quite literally. (SPOILER WARNING) The denouement becomes suddenly and startlingly gory with the St, Sebastian-style murder of Richard and the crass presenting of traitors’ heads to Henry. (Earlier there are two beheadings, incidentally). So expect  a lot of gore and a decisively gruesome tone to this movie’s conclusion.

But civil war and betrayal of kings is a nasty business and it was so in the 1400s and 1500s in England. Gould makes the point in a Polanski-like way (though exceeding his predecessor) as to why and how such things were so detestable to ordinary people and sensitive writers like Shakespeare. Was such violence necessary and justified in the film? Well, them was the times.

Regardless, as a teacher in high school, I would not have shown this to a class. The violence makes this a mature film and most kids won’t get the language and Shakespeare in it as will a university lit student. In short, the film is mainly for lovers and serious students of Shakespeare. That said, yes, this first movie in the series (which includes Henry IV-Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V) has a strong emotional, visual, verbal, visceral, and mental wallop, and is easily the definitive version of this history play. 9/10, after a minus 1/10 deduction for a choice of a slightly over-the-top, tasteless gory ending.

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