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Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film

43. Rupert Goold’s Richard II (2012)

Dear readers, your indulgent rogue sometimes has a difficult time out of doors during those times when he is recognized as such a keen evaluator of the films made from Shakespeare. “Will you review this film?” they yip, and “Will you review that film?” they yap. I can’t stick my head inside Trader Joe’s or Publix or Walt Disney World without people keeping me from my business. I am happy to be your Sherpa through the blessed and damned efforts of filmmakers with the bard, but it isn’t always easy. I have taken to wearing disguises.

The truth is that any film having any pretense to having to do with Shakespeare I do intend to seek out.

Except for the BBC’s Shakespeare Collection, filmed in television studios from 1978 to 1985. This is the most ambitious filmic attempt at Shakespeare, in that every one of Shakespeare’s plays was attempted. Every one of them is un-fucking-watchable despite having so many ideal acts of casting. In the opening fight scene of Romeo and Juliet, Alan Rickman didn’t stumble upon his mark the way he was supposed to after being shoved, so he fake-stumbled a few feet more to land upon his mark. Anthony Hopkins and Bob Hoskins played Othello and Iago, respectively, and the performances are wasted.

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John Cleese as Petruchio is boring. (To have Richard Burton in one’s memory also makes this performance difficult to suffer, despite Cleese being a wonderful actor, not just in comic roles.) The sense of all of these productions is that they were cheaply and hastily made, and the talented actors could not rescue the doomed, made-for-television aesthetic of the whole horrible lot. They lack the integrity of Strange Brew.

In 2012, The BBC perhaps tried to atone for its shameful ruination of all of Shakespeare’s plays by filming, much more cinematically, four of Shakespeare’s history plays that tell a concurrent story: Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V. They called this series The Hollow Crown, after one of Richard II’s speeches that is worth quoting at length:

No matter where; of comfort no man speak:

Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;

Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes

Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,

Let’s choose executors and talk of wills:

And yet not so, for what can we bequeath

Save our deposed bodies to the ground?

Our lands, our lives and all are Bolingbroke’s,

And nothing can we call our own but death

And that small model of the barren earth

Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground

And tell sad stories of the death of kings;

How some have been deposed; some slain in war,

Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;

Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;

All murder’d: for within the hollow crown

That rounds the mortal temples of a king

Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,

Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,

Allowing him a breath, a little scene,

To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,

Infusing him with self and vain conceit,

As if this flesh which walls about our life,

Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus

Comes at the last and with a little pin

Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!

Cover your heads and mock not flesh and blood

With solemn reverence: throw away respect,

Tradition, form and ceremonious duty,

For you have but mistook me all this while:

I live with bread like you, feel want,

Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,

How can you say to me, I am a king?

The four plays in The Hollow Crown, season 1, chronicle the existential problems of politics and the idea of nobility in terms of social class. Such a run of narratives could be of great use to us Americans now, in an America whose political reality seems beyond our grasp. The Hollow Crown has authentic locations that are grandly cinematic in scope, and there is not a single actor who seems ill-prepared. A perk of running concurrent productions is that the recurring characters can be played by the same tremendous actors and locations can be meaningfully re-used, giving each play continuity with the other plays. These movies automatically vault over the horrors of The Shakespeare Collection.

But.

Richard II is difficult for me to like.

To be specific, this version of Richard II leaves me no character to root for, when good productions might make me root for every character.

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Richard II is a meditation on the idea of nobility and the divine right of kings. Or maybe it is a grotesque rutting around in such themes.

Richard seems to take pride in being a cruel king while posturing himself as Christ incarnate. Ben Whishaw (who plays Q in the most recent James Bond films) micromanages a painter at work on a martyr portrait. And when he decides to banish Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray, for their hubris in insisting upon their conflicting honors, he can barely pay attention to them while feeding his monkey.

The monkey, incidentally, is very cute. He is truly the most likeable character.

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Patrick Stewart plays John of Gaunt, and it is a joy to hear him recite Shakespeare.

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If I have to pick on any actors in this film, I can’t find it in me to do so.

Adam Cork’s music is fine.

The settings are perfect.

So why can’t I like this?

One problem is that the series is named for a phrase from Richard’s speech of despair, when he realizes that being king will not save or protect him anymore. And the speech is used as an voice-over to begin the film, in case we didn’t get the theme, and then appears later at the normal place in the play.

If Richard would have seemed more complex, he might seem like a wonderful trickster character whose morality would be really interesting: testing the culture of English nobility from the vantage point of someone who is beyond the reach of those he is testing, unless they wish to forgo their own convictions about nobility.

But this Richard seems too self-absorbed, too simpering, and only takes an interest in others for the sake of cruelty. Ben Whishaw’s voice is a wonderful match to Shakespeare’s language, but his take on the role is unbearable.

Clémence Poésy, as Queen Isabella, is the emotional center of this story, in that she manages to convey an awareness of the stakes before things have gone fully wrong. She has, unlike most of these characters in this film, an emotional IQ.

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She doesn’t have a lot of scenes.

And the monkey is very cute.

photo: Nick briggs

And Richard complains rather a lot. Ug.

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John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.

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