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on 26 July 2012
The Hollow Crown is the best drama shown on the BBC for many years. Every aspect of the production was first rate, particularly the top notch cast and wonderful cinematography with beautiful landscapes. In Richard II Ben Whishaw gave a fine performance as a king tormented by his own insecurities and finally deposed. Each subsequent drama seemed to reach a higher plane than the last, culminating in a superb final rendition of Henry V. I agree that cutting the conspiracy scene (crucial) and enlarging the role of the Duke of York in Henry V were mistakes. However, Simon Russell Beale and Jeremy Irons were both excellent as Falstaff - showing the character's more reflective side as well as his roistering - and the ageing King whose dreams of the crown turn to bitter reality. But I have to single out Tom Hiddleston's performance as Henry V as quite exceptional, I totally disagree with those reviewers who disliked it. Some of the speeches such as the Crispian's day one were low key and pensive, but all the more moving for that I would argue, and his courtship of the Princess showed a wonderful light touch. This Henry V starts off as a dissolute young man who matures into a courageous leader of men but also a profound thinker who is fully aware of the horrors of the war that he unleashes. If Hiddleston does not win many awards, I will be surprised - he is one to watch. I can't wait to get the DVD now.
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on 11 July 2012
If you buy any DVD of a TV production this year, it has to be 'The Hollow Crown'. I have watched countless film and television versions of Shakespeare's plays in the past and I can honestly say there have been none like these versions. Forget David Tennant's edgy, modern-day 'Hamlet' (hard, I know, as it was pretty unforgettable): these new history plays are simply stunning.

I think what is rarely touched upon in reviews is how accessible these new films make Shakespeare. I watched 'Richard II' with my mum hoping she would not get bored by the long, philosophical speeches, but she thoroughly enjoyed it. Even for a literature student Shakespeare isn't exactly a walk in the park and having not approached 'Richard II' before, I was thinking, as I sat down to watch it, that I should have made an effort to skim-read the play in my Collected Works, just to get a gist of the plot. I'm glad I didn't. Watching the film was like looking into Shakespeare's world through a new pair of Specsaver glasses: everything came startlingly into focus. I promise you, if you are attentive and ready to engage, 'Richard II' is as accessible, exciting and fun to watch as any other epic action film you are likely to see.

I can't praise the settings, cinematography and costume of the first instalment enough. And I would certainly run the risk of sounding gushy ('you already are, dear') if I started on Ben Whishaw's performance as Richard. But this guy is incredibly good. This film is incredibly good. The handing over of the crown scene literally took my breath away. Whishaw excels so much here that it is by far the most sublime part of the film. And Rory Kinnear makes the scene happen too: his Bolingbroke may have nothing much to say, but is appropriately humiliated and wary, setting off Richard's clever and beautiful kaleidoscope of emotions.

With 'Henry IV, part 1', the scale is mostly a lot smaller as Shakespeare deals with the domestics of father and son relationships and the carnal realms of the Boars Head tavern. Inevitably, we are not treated to the gorgeous settings of 'Richard II' and spend much of the time in the confines of the tavern set, which (though necessary) feels like a step down after such a treat. But the production is still impressive, imaginative (the initial interchanges between the court and the Boars Head are bold and new, if a little clunky) and very well cast.

Falstaff is brilliant - every inch the show-stealer the play-write purposed him to be - and Simon Russell Beale puts on the most hilarious performance in the prince/king role-play scene. Tom Hiddleston - who I'm sure will soon be a household name, if not already - has bravely made his Hal a less likeable prince than those of other productions. He is less vivacious, more cruel. As a result, Hiddleston has the tricky task of making us warm to his character; but he succeeds, and in 'Henry IV part 2' he produces some touching scenes as he contemplates the crown.

I'm thrilled we have a version of the less popular 'Henry IV part 2' to enjoy, particularly because the king-Hal scene, when the prince is woefully misunderstood, has some of my favourite lines in the tetralogy. Some scenes with Falstaff's cronies inevitably may not translate well for modern audiences, but there are fun moments.

I have not yet seen the last production, but when I do I will hopefully update this review with the news that it was just as good as its precursors.

**UPDATE**: 'Henry V' was fantastic. There were some bold cuts from the text - notably the traitors scene early on - but they were totally the right cuts. The film should be admired for its very definite vision, its ability to move, and for the fine performance from Hiddleston - his Harry lets you into his insecurities and is perfectly pitched for today's audience.
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on 5 August 2013
I am Brasilian so I grew up watching only the most popular Shakesperean plays. Only Henry V ( the movie with Kenneth Branagh) I knew a little. It was very good for me to watch these historical plays that comprises the group of Shakesperian plays that covers the history of the War of the Roses. I liked it very much and Jeremy Irons was superb as Henry IV. Tom Middleton as Henry V in the play of Henry IV was little more than a playboy and he played the part very well. As Henry the V his part grew and so his gravitas as a King. I loved his scene with Catherine of Valois, very playful and spoken in French (the original play asks it of the actors). RIchard II I did not knew at all but loved how the actor played the misguided King. The figurines were superb and the castles and rooms looked as I think they should have looked in the 15th century. And as a plus: Subtitles. For a non-english, subtitles for Shakespeare are a necessity. I think that even persons that are born in England these days do not understand the 16th century language of Shakespeare so subtitles are very good to study the language and to not lose itself in the melée of the dialogues. Very aptly titled: THE HOLLOW CROWN, after the monologue in the first play (Richard II), it describes the fight of men that are cousins and desire above anything to be king (to put the crown of England in his head). But this crown is HOLLOW, so I understand, the Power that it confers is transitory and very bitter. Very wise and very sad because as the war of roses continued, we see these powerful cousins destroying each other to end with a wasted land and many years of civil wars. Beautiful played Shakespeare. ( I ask forgiveness if I mispelled the name of some actor in this review, because my english is not very good, please check the review of Amazon for the names of the actors)
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"The Hollow Crown" is BBC's magnificent filming of the Shakespeare's second Henriad (Richard II with Henry IV's rise to power, Henry IV, parts I and II, and Henry V). I believe the first three of these have only been filmed in the old 1970s BBC series of Shakespeare's complete works, and although the old series was at its best with its version of Henry IV, "The Hollow Crown" is far above it. Simon Russell Beale is the ideal choice for Falstaff, even with Orson Welles hard on his heels in the Falstaff compilation "Chimes at Midnight", Tom Hiddleston is a great Prince Hal, and Jeremy Irons, never known to err, shines as the guilt-ridden King Henry IV.

There are some interesting comments on the bonus material for Henry IV, part II that explains why the plays come across so successfully in 2012. Thea Sharrock, director of Henry V, muses that people may be shocked at hearing the actors speak in real surroundings (on location), but of course, that's old hat. Even Olivier anticipated that in 1944 with his Henry V. Moviegoers are not that easily shocked anymore. And although Hiddelston is also mistaken in his claim that it has never been done before, he is right in stating that "Shakespeare is at its best when you speak it like you're making it up." Julie Walters adds, "You've got to speak the lines, not in a stilted isn't-the-verse-beautiful kind of way; it's got to be the way you talk"
This natural way of speaking the lines, more foreign to British Shakespeare productions than to American ones, accounts for the greatness of "The Hollow Crown".
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"The Hollow Crown" is BBC's magnificent filming of the Shakespeare's second Henriad (Richard II with Henry IV's rise to power, Henry IV, parts I and II, and Henry V). I believe the first three of these have only been filmed in the old 1970s BBC series of Shakespeare's complete works, and although the old series was at its best with its version of Henry IV, "The Hollow Crown" is far above it. Simon Russell Beale is the ideal choice for Falstaff, even with Orson Welles hard on his heels in the Falstaff compilation "Chimes at Midnight", Tom Hiddleston is a great Prince Hal, and Jeremy Irons, never known to err, shines as the guilt-ridden King Henry IV.
There are some interesting comments on the bonus material for Henry IV, part II that explains why the plays come across so successfully in 2012. Thea Sharrock, director of Henry V, muses that people may be shocked at hearing the actors speak in real surroundings (on location), but of course, that's old hat. Even Olivier anticipated that in 1944 with his Henry V. Moviegoers are not that easily shocked anymore. And although Hiddelston is also mistaken in his claim that it has never been done before, he is right in stating that "Shakespeare is at its best when you speak it like you're making it up." Julie Walters adds, "You've got to speak the lines, not in a stilted isn't-the-verse-beautiful kind of way; it's got to be the way you talk"
This natural way of speaking the lines, more foreign to British Shakespeare productions than to American ones, accounts for the greatness of "The Hollow Crown".
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on 15 July 2012
A pleasure to see, a rare experience nowadays on the BBC. This is one of the finest production on the BBC for years and years. This is a definite must have DVD set - just a pity all the history plays are not part of the series (or will there be a season 2?)

Just about forgive the BBC for shifting the Henry IV Part 1 to 10.00 (to show the Women's Doubles - glad that was more important than one of the best shows in the last 10 years or so - certainly up there with the I, Claudius etc)

I've always found the history plays the least inspiring of Shakespeare's plays, but not now, I will now watch them (at the Globe etc) with more enthusiasm.

Now, I hope the BBC will put on some modern plays (as with Sky Arts - if only the BBC was as good as that channel) as well as some Jacobean / Restoration / World Drama / Chekov / Ibsen and others .. Hollow Crown deserves to be followed by some more great drama
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Compellingly Shakespeare studies in detail the strengths and weaknesses of three consecutive kings. Richard II (Ben Whishaw), led astray by flatterers, learns all too soon "Divine Right" offers no protection when one so alienates. Henry IV (Jeremy Irons) feels doubly insecure - mindful his crown was obtained by force and all may be lost if his pleasure-loving heir continues to cavort with low life. Henry V (Tom Hiddleston) is that wayward prince transformed, previous experiences allowing him the common touch that helps secure glorious victory against France.

Four discs. Four interesting bonuses. Many imaginative touches and much to provoke thought. Ben Whishaw tells how the Histories are amongst the less accessible of Shakespeare's plays, actors thus having to work that little bit harder. A major aim has been to make the magnificent language sound as natural as possible. Film, rather than stage, gives far greater scope for nuances, so much conveyed by subtle expressions. Fascinatingly, characters not featured prominently in print visually now have a major part to play. Take John Hurt's Chorus in "Henry V", for example. (Slight spoiler coming up!) Only at the very end do we learn this old man has been looking back on events witnessed as the page boy we were seeing so often. (By the way, the very start of "Henry V" may unsettle some.)

Throughout, much is superb - full of unexpected touches that add rather than distract. "Richard II" is visually stunning, full of colour to reflect the monarch's extravagant lifestyle. "Henry IV" is generally far more austere, that pivotal battle amidst snow a highlight. "Henry V" has Harry's two traditionally rousing speeches more as asides to those closest around him.

When viewed in quick succession, continuity is greatly helped by Tom Hiddleston being in both "Henry IV" and "Henry V" (by happy chance, as it turns out). Earlier, Rory Kinnear's future Henry IV becomes Jeremy Irons when King, which initially jolts a little. Both actors are superb, but in different ways.

With so much excelling, it may seem unfair to single out just one performance, but Simon Russell Beale's Falstaff may for many prove a lingering memory - especially when all his high hopes, indeed confident expectations, are so devastatingly dashed. Movingly portrayed is the shock from which he will never recover.

Great talents have converged, the result a triumph.

(P.S. Which of the three Kings reigned longest? The answer may surprise you. It certainly did me.)
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on 23 July 2012
Ever since I found out about this series I had been looking forward to it with great anticipation, not least because these are some of my favourite Shakespeare plays but also because as a student of medieval history I have a particular interest in the period then the plays are set.

I admit I rather doubted the BBCs capacity to be faithful to the setting without being obsessively politically correct but was, for the most part pleasantly surprised.

In Richard II Ben Wishaw was excellent in the title role as a king whose sense of his own majesty gave him a sense of something like detachment from the events around him. Whishaw's Richard could be nothing other than a King, and one could almost believe that by taking his crown, Bolingbroke also destroyed Richard the man.

Patrick Stewart as the ailing John of Gaunt was also an excellent casting choice, and for the most part the production was solid, authentic looking and realistic.
My only gripe was that some of the violence did seem a little excessive, and it hardly seemed likely that anyone would deliver the severed heads of traitors to the King personally in a basket, and that King Richard seemed much too camp at times. His possible homosexual tendencies were only rumoured and never proven that I know of, but here they seem to be presented as an obvious and known fact in some places.

In Henry IV Jeremy Irons gave us a more 'grown up', mature, brooding and more troubled Henry beset by rebellion, illness and his own conscience. Shakespeare did a wonderful job of portraying Henry's gradual breakdown as he struggled to retain control of his kingdom and his household and Irons depicts this well.
I loved Joe Armstong as the headstrong and cocky Hotspur (though I never really liked him as Allan a Dale), with friction between him and fellow rebel Owen Glendower very noticeable.

The only real disappointment for me was Falstaff who for the most part simply seemed unfunny, and just sounded like an unhinged old man talking to himself when he delivered the soliloquies that were meant to give insights into his character, and the only other gripe I had was the sexual content.
It was obvious that Doll Tearsheet was a prostitute, and anyone could guess what she and Falstaff got up to in the bedroom so was it really necessary for the programme makers to show them 'at it' anyway? Not really.

Henry V, my favourite Shakespeare play of all was a total let down, which did not nearly reach the standard of its predecessors. It was not the play that was the problem- it has enough political intrigue, romance, heroism, battle scenes, acts of courage and emotional poignancy to make a first rate Drama, and there have been wonderful adaptations of it in the past, most notably Kenneth Branagh's 1989 version. However, the casting, quality of acting and editing of the latest version created a mutilated, disjointed, and rather dry and non-compelling adaptation.

Personally, for me Tom Hiddleston did not 'cut it' as the Shakespeare's warrior King Henry V whose charisma and strength of character alone could inspire his men to victory. Indeed, this Henry seemed positively lightweight.
Many of the other characters seem to have lacked any depth, and simply delivered their lines without sounding as though their heart was really in it. Thus there seemed to be little feeling or emotion in this version as there is in Branagh's. Even the famous Crispin's Day speech (`We Few we happy few') to me did not seem at all moving or inspiring, and the humorous scenes or interludes failed to deliver any comic relief.

The filmmakers cut out a number of scenes and passages, including the Southampton Plot in which three nobles were discovered to have planned to kill King Henry before he left for France. This scene was arguably important in its depiction of Henry's character development as it shows he was capable of making tough and even painful decisions to protect his kingdom- the harsh reality for Medieval kings, as well as showing that there was opposition to him.

Also Henry's two brothers Humphrey Duke of Gloucester and John Duke of Bedford (formerly John of Lancaster in Henry IV) are absent from this version for reasons unknown. Though Bedford's absence can perhaps be historically justified because he was not at Agincourt, his brother Gloucester was. So why not include him?
Yet despite his sibling's absence Henry is still heard to say 'we are in God's hand brother' after treating with the French herald- a line originally delivered in response to Gloucester's voicing his hope that the French would not come upon the English too soon, when his brother is not even there and the line makes no sense.

Instead the Duke of York, a minor character with only a few lines in the original play replaces them in a prominent role, constantly appearing as something like the King's 'right hand man'- and sometimes seemingly being given other characters' lines or roles.
For instance it was the King's Uncle the Duke of Exeter that Pistol asked Llewellyn to intercede with to stop Bardolph being hanged in the original play, yet for some reason in this version York is the one who is responsible for this. It can be assumed that the elevation of York's character reflected the casting of an Ethnic minority actor is his role, and the BBC's desire to ensure he was not therefore overshadowed by White British actors with `bigger' or more important roles.

Finally, events surrounding the killing of the prisoners at Agincourt (which was cut out of Branagh's version) did not seem to be well portrayed- it is shown that Henry feared the French would regroup and make a fresh attack hence his given the order to kill the prisoners, but all we see are three French knights riding by, hardly enough to pose a threat.
Thus the whole scene is implausible especially when Henry refers to the French knights still riding over the field when only he and a few English soldiers are visible.

Only the beginning and final scene of this version really featuring Henry's funeral seemed to be any good, as they helped to 'round off' the story and give the audience a sense of finality- as well as letting them know what happened to Henry. The chorus' closing speech recounting the loss of France and demise of the Lancastrian dynasty gave the ending a poignantly tragic note, but one which sadly could not make up for the deficiencies of the rest of the play. The final installment was, in my opinion was a disappointing and weak conclusion to an otherwise great series.
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‘The Hollow Crown’ is almost certainly the best drama screened by the BBC for many a year, a triumph which confirms the corporation as the world’s premier broadcasting network for classics such as this.

With notable exceptions like ‘Henry V’ and ‘Richard III’, Shakespeare’s history plays are often viewed as difficult to perform and have rarely been committed to film. But in ‘The Hollow Crown’ this series of plays (‘The Henriad’) is brought to vigorous new life. Every aspect of the production is excellent: A-List and near-perfect casting, fabulous primeval landscape cinematography, great use of surviving mediaeval interiors, gorgeous and convincingly naturalistic costumes, subtle and powerful performances, clever direction allowing the stories to reveal their complexities to a modern audience, and an exciting narrative which holds the attention throughout bringing Shakespeare’s wonderful, poignant use of language alive as never before.

Highlights of a uniformly excellent series: Ben Whishaw’s subtle, complex and sympathetic performance as Richard II (the crown-handover scene is surely destined to become one of film history’s most dramatically poignant moments); the performance of Jeremy Irons as the older Henry IV, and – the biggest surprise of all - Tom Hiddleston's astounding performance as Henry V which eclipses the benchmark cinematic portrayals by Olivier and Branagh in subtlety and conviction, adding a whole new level of understanding to the character in the process.

Julie Walters says the secret of performing Shakespeare is to “deliver the lines like that’s the way you naturally speak”, and in these productions Shakespeare’s magnificent language reveals an accessibility rarely achieved before. The intimacy of the camera close-up enables a greater focus on nuance and subtlety in the language, and characters with lesser prominence in the text as a result often come alive on the screen.

Overall: fabulous, brilliant, a feast for the eye, the ear and the mind. The quality of the Blu-Ray BTW is uniformly superb.
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on 22 July 2012
Just wished there was more to come. Best TV aired for years. You pick up the language after a while and we were completely absorbed by the serie. Never been a great Shakespeare fan...shock horror...but Im a convert after this.. What a man with such knowledge of people. All completely relavent to today.
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