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The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses: Henry VI Parts I & II - Review * 14 May 2016

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The BBC adaptations of William Shakespeare's sequence of history plays makes a triumphant return in a second concluding series of The Hollow Crown, this time depicting the country exploding in civil war in The Wars of the Roses. As with the first series, this second run is anchored by astonishing performances by a sterling cast, with Benedict Cumberbatch joining Hugh Bonneville, Sophie Okenado, Tom Sturridge and Judi Dench.

By the nature of the plays though, not all of those cast members appear together. In fact, Benedict is entirely absent from the opening part of Henry VI, with the leading role fulfilled in an excellent, sympathetic turn by Hugh Bonneville as the Duke of Gloucester. The opening film is structured around the downfall of Gloucester, the protector of the realm who is outmanoeuvred by his unseen enemies. He is the custodian of Henry VI (Tom Sturridge) who as we rapidly see is feckless, ineffective and no sort of match for the either the great legacy of his father or those who begin to rise up against him. The pair are initially manipulated by Somerset (Ben Miles) and Queen Margaret (Sophie Okenedo), as rival factions begin to jockey for position.

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The result is that throughout both parts of Henry VI, we see a revolving door of characters - perhaps no more obviously than a highly billed Michael Gambon who receives a comically tiny amount of screen time early on in Part I. Those that last a little longer find themselves in a complex narrative that is a result of some quite judicious editing of the three plays that form Henry VI, stripping everything down to pure plot. The result is akin to a political thriller, and as a result some inevitable comparisons in our modern television landscape become apparent.

This is of course the real history that that grand television hit Game of Thrones is most directly influenced by, with the competing parties fighting over the right to rule England. On the flipside though, this production is perhaps unavoidably influenced by Game of Thrones itself, and as a result this looks more cinematic and sumptuous than the first series of The Hollow Crown. There are some real treats throughout, with the production design significantly amped up, the progression of history bringing heavier, clanking armour plate, and technology affording some brilliant tricks - particular favourites being a camera mounted on the back of a hawk, and a stunning in-helmet view of a battle.

Those battles are one of the defining aspects of Henry VI - the plays are often called out as among Shakespeare's weakest by scholars due to the sheer amount of crowd pleasing combat on display, and there's no doubting that they do take up a formidable part of the screen time, particularly in Part II which effectively starts as it means to go on with a bout of medieval street combat. Rather than devolving into mindless violence though, the sequences become superb exercises in tension filled brutality, and more often than not that brutality comes at the hands of the younger Richard Plantagenet, played by Benedict Cumberbatch.

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The man who would be Shakespeare's arguably most famous villain enters quietly in Part II, nearly ten minutes into the run time, and doesn't get a spoken line for almost another ten minutes after that. But as the film progresses, we see Benedict slowly, methodically do sterling work as the character of the man emerges. He becomes a mass of simmering anger following Queen Margaret's apoplectic and murderous reaction to the elder Plantagenet's negotiated seizure of the crown from a meek King Henry, in stark contrast to his other brothers who remain shaking with loss. In many ways, Margaret creates the monster that Richard will become through her own actions of ambition.

Richard cannot be king immediately, and as in the text he spells out his plans to us, famously breaking the fourth wall and directly addressing the audience in utterly mesmerising, chilling fashion. He does everything others are unwilling to do with methods that are spiteful and brutal, and is more than willing to get his hands dirty in combat, making Benedict a striking physical presence as he lopes into battle in full armour. The results when he gets there can often be hard to stomach, as Richard is a callous, cruel combatant, extremely willing to leave a bested opponent to bleed to death, or to slice the throat of an unarmed prisoner - and take perverse, delirious enjoyment in the act of doing so. Be prepared, for this is a Cumberbatch performance that you have never seen the like of before. 

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Besides Henry, there is another king on display in Part II, and one that will be very familiar to you if you're viewing this as a fan of Sherlock. Andrew Scott makes a brief, enjoyable appearance as the flamboyant King Louis XI of France, who is the opposite of the King of England in his decisiveness, and furious as the seemingly petty politics of the other country become a personal sleight against him. It's a fun, critical role for Andrew in the turns of the narrative, decked out in a showpiece crown (at last!) and decadent, billowing sleeves.

All this is in marked contrast to the titular king. Tom Sturridge does quiet, excellent work through both parts of the adaptation, in particular once Sophie Okenado's Margaret comes on the scene and begins to relentless manipulate Henry's naivety. Henry grows most effectively in the second part however, when he is confronted with the brutality of the battlefield - a situation that causes him to flee the scene and in this portrayal basically go full Gollum. It's a moment of performance bravery by Sturridge, running around on bleak wetland in not much more than his underwear. This approach also helps to make it clear that Henry's cowardice is the total opposite of Richard's furious ambition, the mark of a man who never wanted to be king in the first place but was unavoidably anointed at nine months old. This honourable pacifism and Richard's willingness to do whatever is necessary to further his ambition fatefully brings the pair finally together, with the results that you can expect.  

By the close, the stage is set for the more famous play of this sequence to make a stunning debut. What emerges from both parts of Henry VI is an examination of two men - one who ultimately never wanted to be king, and another who will become king at any cost. For plays that are often belittled, these two thrilling productions absolutely enrich the finale of this series and one of Shakespeare's great works - Richard III, a play that presents us with a stunning, despotic villain almost like no other.

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