Shakespeare on Film: The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses: Henry VI, part 1

William Shakespeare, adapted by Dominic Cooke and Ben Power

BFI Southbank

From 31 March 2016 to 31 May 2016

Review by Anita-Marguerite Butler

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The British Film Institute has begun its two month celebration marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death with a rich season of treats including classic adaptations and modern re-workings of his plays, international films, films for TV, talks, and Q&As with special guests such as Sir Ian McKellen.

Celebrations commenced last night with a film screening of The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses, parts 1 and 2—a re-working of Shakespeare’s King Henry VI, parts 1-3. Adaptations provide a further one step removed feel to live filmed theatrical recordings (currently on trend) because we are not seeing the play-as-staged. But the gains over theatre are the same: clear sight lines, constancy of sound and vision, quick location changes, and less need for laborious back stories.

Dominic Cooke and Ben Power’s part one conflates Shakespeare’s part one with a good chunk of his part two, so that we begin, as he does, with Henry V's funeral, but end on a cliff-hanger (that nicely brackets the opening’s scenic sweep over Dover’s white cliffs) as Plantagenet (Adrian Dunbar) calls his sons to arms, and a boy destined to become one of Shakespeare’s biggest players is glimpsed.

This is a fine reworking for those who don’t know the plays—or for those that do, but don’t care about minor tics. Those who do know the plays might mourn for the total cutting of Jack Cade and Dick the Butcher. Much is made of Joan of Arc’s burning at the stake—something Shakespeare despatches in a few lines and off-stage action.

Lords abound in Shakespeare and their cutting and/or conflating can be justified. But there are lords, and lords. Shakespeare’s Suffolk woos Margaret (Sophie Okonedo) for himself instead of for King Henry (Tom Sturridge). Here, Suffolk’s role is Somerset’s.

At the interval Q&A, the inclusion of a very mild sex scene was questioned and justified because the text suggests it as likely to have happened. Yes, possibly: but between Margaret and Suffolk (not Margaret and Somerset).

Does this matter? The cast is quality, especially Hugh Bonneville’s earnest Humphrey of Gloucester. And Shakespeare’s reaching a wide audience can only be good. And yet, these productions will likely become the DVDs used in schools, and a chance to get things right has been missed. What is clear is that Shakespeare on Film will always start a conversation.