70: Dominic Cooke’s Henry VI Parts 1 & 2 (2016)
I am an outright Shakespeare junkie, dear readers. This you should know by now. Yet the prospect of outright speed-balling multiple Shakespeare plays in one sitting seems daunting, even to me. I am aware of festivals that mount all of The War of the Roses plays in a single day.
Season 2 of The Hollow Crown lets you over-indulge these plays if you like, or watch them over several nights.
Season 1 of The Hollow Crown (already discussed on this blog) was a bit of a wash. The two parts of Henry IV worked well, with Simon Russell Beale as a tragic Falstaff, Tom Hiddleston as a greasy Prince Hal, and Jeremy Irons as an irascible Henry IV.
Alas and fuck, though, Richard II was mincingly excruciating, and Henry V (bereft of Beale) drags. Maybe the transformation of Prince Hal into King Henry is especially difficult to imagine with the same cast, after two whole installments of Henry IV; the context of the whole makes Henry V seem less noble and meaningful in terms of story arc. Of course, Kenneth Branagh’s film of Henry V makes any other historically accurate film of that play look pallid.
Season 2 of The Hollow Crown turns out to be much stronger, despite having fewer stars in the cast, or perhaps because of that.
The second season begins with Henry VI, Part 1, in which we can see the political nightmare arising out of the scene and collection of temperaments. Henry VI is a very young king who, like Richard II, imagines that the divine right of kings and the culture of nobility would on the whole make the kingdom governable—and unlike Richard II, Henry isn’t abusing the nobility or acting so cruelly that his subjects must rebel. Unfortunately for Henry, he has not seen Richard II firsthand, and is not imaginative enough to know how fragile a thing peace is, especially when others will use him and his noble assumptions as a tool.
The film of Henry VI, Part 1 shouldn’t work, really, for the sake of how complicated its scope is.
France is being re-claimed by the Dauphin after Henry V’s death, aided by Joan of Arc. Henry VI is something of a lofty man-child (as I’ve mentioned) still guided by his uncle Humphrey as the Lord Protector of England.
Richard Plantagenet, whose family has long been stripped of title, learns about the fate of Richard II and that the natural succession of the kings of England would have led him to the throne if Henry IV had not usurped Richard.
Plantagenet convenes some nobles to see who might claim loyalty to him if he made a claim to the throne. This macho act is done by plucking either red or white roses. The nobles sort of break even.
Henry VI makes peace between Humphrey and Winchester, the head of the Church of England, then responds positively to Plantagenet’s request to be granted his family’s title once again. Having settled matters of court, the king then plans to wage war against France.
During that war, the Duke of Somerset is reluctant to assist with some of the fighting so that some of his adversaries in the English court might be killed off. When Somerset does fight, he manages to find Margaret, a French noblewoman whom he finds attractive. He plans to advance her as a matrimonial solution to the French war and then use her as a sexual partner and influence on the king. Margaret is keen, as well, to exert her will over the court.
This is part soap opera, part tragedy. While the sets are consistent with season 1 of The Hollow Crown, season 2 is a vast improvement. Zac Nicholson’s cinematography and Gareth C. Scales’s editing make this plot seem far less convoluted than it is.
Tom Sturridge manages to be a hopelessly foppish Henry VI. His cheekbones are noble, but he looks too stoned, too mellow, to be long for this world in this court.
Ben Miles is a coarse, brutal Somerset. The choice to have him eating while Joan of Arc is burned at the stake is a dark touch.
Hugh Bonneville is a noble Humphrey, someone who insists on living with honor even as he sees the court destroying both him and his country.
Sally Hawkins, who you may remember as the lead in The Shape of Water, plays Eleanor, Humphrey’s wife, who ends up in Margaret’s crosshairs.
In terms of cruelty, the stories of Henry VI Parts 1 and about half of Part 2 approach Titus Andronicus. Part 2 of The Hollow Crown—Henry VI Parts 2 and 3—will match that horror-show.
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.