Given the relative monarchism and conservatism that often marks the BBC’s Shakespeare adaptations, it’s quite something to hear the new Hollow Crown beginning with Judi Dench in voiceover intoning choice excerpts of Ulysses’ famous ‘degree’ speech from Troilus and Cressida. With a slight pause before them, the words “Take but degree away, and mark what discord follows”’ hang over this new trilogy as an epigraph. I find it hard not to read this, in the context of English civil wars, as a message to ‘respect your betters’ or ‘Say what you like about structural inequality and inherited privilege, but it keeps people in line’. If those pesky commoners don’t challenge anything, we’ll all get along happily, and fortunately for the BBC, the Jack Cade rebellion is being cut from this Henry VI trilogy (in an unfathomable decision – why cut the best scenes of the whole sequence, unless the BBC’s legal team really can’t stand to hear ‘Let’s kill all the lawyers’?), so there’s no real challenge to monarchy in this adaptation, just a question over which monarch should wear the crown.
My political qualms aside, this is a beautiful and sensitive adaptation, and in the hands of Ben Power and Dominic Cooke the complex story makes an enormous amount of sense. The film jumps straight into the political conflict, seeming to take York’s side by having Dumbledore himself (Michael Gambon) as Mortimer explaining to Adrian Dunbar’s York the veracity of his claim. York has the performative evidence of an elaborate scroll to do the visual work of showing he is the right, and Ben Miles has such a wonderfully malicious scowl as Somerset that no conscientious viewer could possibly take his side. Somerset’s promise of horses is returned to in the next scene as the camera cuts between Philip Glennister’s Talbot fighting bloodily and Somerset getting a massage and refusing to send them (only villains get massages during battles). Yet the conflict is established beautifully, with a silent opening to Henry VI’s court catching the rose emblems being worn by each faction, the conflict seeping into the court before anyone gets to establish themselves.
The film crafts fabulous moments of tension in the court scenes, over which Tom Sturridge presides as a long-haired Henry, dwarfed by the throne in which he sits and doing his best to play the king with slightly awkward speeches and appeals to his men’s hearts. His innocence and delicacy do more than his words to restrain open conflict, but the nobles are otherwise unguarded – York speaks freely in front of Anton Lesser’s Exeter, for instance, and Exeter’s soliloquy about York’s arrogance is spoken directly to Stanley Townsend’s Warwick. Henry’s choice of the red rose happens as part of an excellent fluffed attempt at reconciliation between York and Somserset, in which he picks both symbols but drops York’s; that moment of carelessness leaves York seething.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this adaptation is that the French wars actually get airtime. While the back and forth of the wars is cut short by skipping straight to the final battle, Glennister and Laura Morgan as Joan do great work establishing the opposing sides of the army. Talbot and his son gather themselves under the walls of a French city, establishing genuine feeling in a precious few sentences through sympathetic close-ups and heavy breathing before they rush out, Butch-and-Sundance style. The French lords are almost entirely cut, but Joan gets some evocative flashback scenes of weeping statues and moments of inspiration before she rallies on the armies from battlements. While the scenes happen quickly, the adapters are sympathetic to the human stories that can be pulled from the trilogy; and under the inevitable influence of Game of Thrones, Joan appears out of nowhere to stab Talbot in the back while he kneels grieving over his son. Talbot and his sons get a full montage of sadness to mourn them – twin coffins draped in the St. George’s cross being lowered into the ground, Exeter looking sadly into the distance, soldiers crossing themselves. But cliché is avoided by turning the burial into a moment of truce, as Warwick stands between York and Somerset and informs them that they must join their armies together. It’s efficient storytelling, the local tragedy being measured out in clear steps and feeding back directly into the broader political arc.
The biggest thematic resonance of the first series of The Hollow Crown is the series’ commitment to the sense that war is bad, whatever side you are on. The finale to the French wars, in which the French are caught napping and the English plough through a castle, is suitably horrific, and the filmmakers work hard to demonstrate suffering on all sides. I found this approach frustrating in Henry V, where the film struggled to find a tone or message. Here, the confusion and chaos makes sense – the Wars of the Roses lend themselves towards the grey areas of mutual suffering and hopelessness. The battle scenes are expertly shot, making the most of a television budget through finding structures to shoot in and against, pushing the battles into corners and creating a shape and a geography within which conflict takes place.
The narrative streamlining is perhaps most obvious in the choice to give most of Suffolk’s role to Somerset, making excellent use of the dastardly Miles. The meet-cute between Somerset and Sophie Okonedo’s Margaret takes place during the final storming of the French castle, with Somerset working his way along a dark corridor and meeting Margaret, clad in nightshirt and ready to defend herself with a knife. The violent tension between the two is an effective introduction to the relationship, and the subsequent negotiation with her father takes the form of a post-battle truce (reminiscent, perhaps, of the closing scene of Henry V). The sequence plays alongside York arriving in Joan’s chamber, where he finds her praying in front of a fire and scoops her up, ending the war summarily. It’s a shame that Joan gets to do so little fighting, but Morgan is a vocal match for York, and is given prominence by the camera as she faces down a table full of English nobles even as she stands on the pyre. The clamour surrounding her execution makes the whole sequence more horrific, the cries of the people turning this into a scene of deep conflict. The close-up on her face as she feels the effects of the flames goes even further than Game of Thrones did with its evocation of pain during burning, and the prayers offered by the French people as she burns, her own cursing and the decision to cut out her claims of a child cast her as martyr.
The compression of story feeds well into other sequences as the film moves into the material of 2 Henry VI. The formal meeting of Henry and Margaret is played out here in full, and is sweet. The assembled crowd laugh politely as Margaret titters ‘We thank you all’, and for a moment it is allowed to seem that this is, indeed, a happy union. But Hugh Bonneville steps forward as Duke Humphrey to take over the political action, changing everything in a moment with his hesitation over the news that Maine and Anjou are to be released to the French, changing the whole tone towards hostility to the young couple. Bonneville is perfectly cast as Gloucester, the background music swelling to support his burst of outrage towards the other nobles, in turn inciting Warwick and York to roars of anger. The camera catches a powerful moment of Gloucester pointing at the departed Margaret with a ‘She should have STAYED in France’, setting up the difficult tension between the trusted counsellor and the sweet queen. It is left to Jason Watkins’s Suffolk and Samuel West’s Winchester to mutter through an archway as they watch the others depart (and, in a nice bit of continuity, it’s the same corridor from 1 Henry IV where Northumberland’s crew conspired).
This halfway point marks the beginning of table-setting for the next three hours, and a lovely scene establishes York’s ambition as he sits plotting with his wife while two of his sons (the filmmakers presumably trolling the audience with the insinuation of a possible early glimpse of Benedict Cumberbatch as the young Richard) practice fending before him. This ominous sequence, with music swelling and swords clashing, is instantly contrasted with the unscored image of Gloucester and Sally Hawkins’s Eleanor in a parlour, Humphrey in his nightshirt, as Eleanor comforts him. Music indicates evil in this adaptation – the scene is silent until Eleanor quietly begins telling Humphrey about her own ambitions for the throne, when an eerie rising melody cues the danger of her plans to the audience. For those in any doubt, Eleanor then waits until she is alone and pulls a voodoo doll of the king out of a chest and stabs it with a pin. A clever shift in focus reveals the lackey watching through a window. A third near-parallel scene has Margaret and Somerset practising archery, and Margaret revealing her bitter resentment of her position and of Eleanor. Okonedo is inspired, able to shift seamlessly between politic smiles and the deep furrows of rage.
The brilliance of the table setting then comes in a court scene where everything blows up. The nobles stride out into the centre of the room to take issue with one another, only falling silent when Exeter steps in. But the real hush comes when Margaret shouts out the king’s will, everyone in the room turning in amazement to her. Gloucester steps into the trap, speaking across her, and then Gloucester steps down. Margaret stands to shout ‘enough’ and steps down into the fray to take control. She drops her fan and pointedly stops anyone else from picking it up, forcing Eleanor to walk across the room in silence and in full view of all others. When Eleanor looks her in the face, Margaret causes chaos by slapping her hard across the face. The camera spends most of its time down amid the kerfuffle, ostracising Henry further from his own court; and once again, it is Exeter left alone, pensive, in the middle of the floor as the nobles disperse.
What Cooke achieves is simple, clear storytelling, establishing his key players in a series of small vignettes, and then throwing them all into a high stakes situation. The winners are those who play the large scenes well – Margaret and Somerset, the former particularly in her ability to offer ‘heartfelt’ statements which the whole court can hear – while Henry’s distance renders him irrelevant. Sturridge’s painfully confused face, particularly as he looks in shock at his new wife’s interruption of the business of court, shows him gradually realising how little control he has. When he is presented the voodoo doll at Eleanor’s trial, he pronounces authority while surrounded by his nobles, and his voice quavers as he delivers his sentence; then, Margaret pats him on the arm to ‘remind’ him to take Humphrey’s staff from him before he leaves. It is only later, while alone and looking out of a window at Gloucester being dragged away in the rain, that he seems to be able to speak honestly and openly – but only to himself.
The driving action follows the downfall of the Gloucesters – first with Humphrey returning his staff, then in a moving sequence as he parts from Eleanor before she is driven off in a cart through screaming crowds, and then as he is called into a meeting in a candlelit hall with the nobles, a room that Margaret has already prepared with loud criticisms of Humphrey delivered direct to Henry before the rest of the court. Bonneville makes the most of his opportunity to give final sarcastic retorts to the whole court after his arrest, but in addressing Margaret finally begins to break down. It’s a moving, intimate performance that briefly centres him as the production’s conscience, and his removal from the centre of play feels like a major loss. The genre then slips into intrigue, as a roving camera catches the four-way counsel of Suffolk, Winchester, Somerset and Margaret plotting Humphrey’s death, intercut with Humphrey being cast into a cell. The murder of Humphrey is then intercut with Margaret and Somerset shagging, the victim’s cries merging into Margaret’s orgasm. It isn’t subtle, but it makes fine use of the form to clarify the complex machinations that leave Humphrey’s sprawled leg visible through a doorway.
By the time of Humphrey’s trial, Henry looks tired and resigned. The court is established outside with a large audience, so that Somerset’s ‘discovery’ of Humphrey’s death can have the greatest impact, along with Henry’s public faint. The camera following Henry sweeping through the courtyard uses a low angle to establish him momentarily as a powerful presence as he pushes Somerset away and, his crown fallen from his head, he becomes simply a man. Moments of innovative direction such as this are perhaps too few, but the superb falcon-cam early in the film is an incongruous treat.
York’s long absence from the action is covered with short cut scenes, such as he and Warwick playing a game of chess (= plotting) in a tavern. As the film comes to its close, however, the White Roses come back into play. Warwick and York cross swords with Somerset and Suffolk over the body of Gloucester in a tense stand-off that makes the most of Townsend’s deep growl (Warwick saying ‘Wise king’ has never sounded so threatening). The film builds up its stakes through a raging Henry, an angry York and a Margaret driven to genuine pleading by the threat of Somerset’s banishment. But the action then moves back out to the outdoor courtroom, where Margaret’s pleas take hold and the banishment is repealed, and York takes the opportunity to make his claim. The switch to shakycam at this point destabilises hierarchies, as the red roses take the stage and the white dominate the courtyard. The conclusion promisingly has York return home and greet his sons one by one – Edward, George, Edmund and Richard – who emerges in silhouette, face unseen, staging towards the camera as the music swells and the screen goes to black. The sudden building up to conflict makes this the perfect Part One, and a tantalising cliffhanger for Part Two.