The Wars of the Roses
"The War(s) of the Roses" is generally understood as the civil war in England between the House of Lancaster and the House of York, which roughly spanned the 15th century. Shakespeare dramatized the events in a series of history plays: Richard II, Henry IV (Parts 1 and 2), Henry V, Henry VI (Parts 1, 2, and 3), and Richard III. This cycle features some of Shakespeare's most memorable heroes (feckless Prince Hal turned valiant King Henry), villains (the hunchbacked Richard III), supporting characters (hotheaded Hotspur), and comic creations (Falstaff). The pageantry, historical sweep, epic battles, and huge cast of characters practically beg for cinematic treatment. The BBC recently produced an ambitious series, The Hollow Crown, that adapted each of the history plays into lavish, star-studded TV films spread across two seasons. But everyone from Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles to Kenneth Branagh have found inspiration in Shakespeare's stirring odes to (and trenchant critiques of) English history's own bloody and protracted "Game of Thrones."
Filmed at the height of the Second World War, Laurence Olivier did his part to rally the troops and stir the English blood by directing and starring in this rousing (some might say jingoistic) adaptation of Henry V. Olivier took care to cut any lines that cast King Henry's nobility into doubt (the not-so-admirable threat to slaughter the infants of a besieged town, for example). But to Olivier's credit he does not pretend to realism; the candy-colored sets and costumes proclaim the fantasy elements of the production, which endures as a storybook fantasy of chivalry.
With his pageboy haircut, hooded eyes, sharp nose, and merciless sneer, Laurence Olivier remains the most iconic Richard III. It is certainly his most darkly sardonic and deliciously diabolical performance. He directs the film as a Grimm’s fairytale with a villainous spider at the center of the colorful web. Olivier surrounds himself with an all-star cast: Sir John Gielgud is a noble Clarence; Claire Bloom a touching Lady Anne (seduced by Richard over the corpse of her husband, whom Richard has recently murdered – one of Shakespeare’s most audacious scenes brilliantly carried off by Olivier); Sir Ralph Richardson is excellent as the politicking Buckingham. But the movie belongs to Olivier. One of cinema’s great seducers, he was born to play the cunning, charming, theatrical "lump of foul deformity" whose asides to the camera generate a sense of queasy intimacy. Like Lady Anne, we find ourselves beguiled against our wills by the wily and charismatic
Has there ever been a more felicitous pairing of part and performer than Falstaff and Orson Welles? With his rotund body and orotund voice, Welles knew he was born to play “this huge hill of flesh,” “Sir John” Falstaff, Shakespeare’s iconic sack-swilling scamp and scallywag. Ever the cinematic magpie, Welles played fast-and-loose with his source material, shredding and patching bits of Richard II, Henry V, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Henry IV parts I and II to fashion a new narrative with Falstaff positioned front-and-center. In a telling admission, Welles described Falstaff as Shakespeare’s “only perfectly moral character.” Considering Falstaff is a liar, a lech, a thief, and a “corruptor of youth,” what could Welles’s definition of “moral” actually be? Perhaps it is a childlike vision of life as endless play -- a ludic, life-affirming activity forged in fellowship. Falstaff is not larger-than-life he is life, in all its vast, tragi-comic complexity.It is a triumph of formal invention, boundless energy, deep human empathy as it whiplashes from low comedy to high lyricism, from quick-witted merriment to wintry melancholy. Welles creates a forcefield of vitality around Falfstaff; he is like a planet not only in roundness and girth, but in the force he exerts on the lesser moons around him, pulled into his orbit and existing only as if by his reflected light.
HenryV is surely one of the Shakespeare plays most amenable to screen adaptation. First, it’s an epic, larger-than-life story. Loaded with princes and nobles galore, decked out in the garments and weapons of chivalry, Henry V tells a tale of intrigues and betrayals, courtly romance, and heroic battles against outrageous odds. In this sense, and in spite of the otherwise notorious difficulties of bringing off Shakespeare in the medium of feature film, Henry V might be one of the few of the Bard’s plays which can actually work better on screen than onstage, given the vast resources of filmic make-believe. Branagh burst onto the scene with his first film as actor-director, earning an Academy Award nomination in the process. It remains gritty, bold, passionate filmmaking from a young actor-director full of guts and ambition.
Anyone who has seen the British or American versions of House of Cards will be primed to enjoy Shakespeare’s classic tale of the power-hungry “lump of foul deformity,” Richard III – Francis Urquart andFrank Underhill are clearly modeled after the Bard’s indelible hunchbacked villain. There’s a reason Richard III is the most performed play byShakespeare: it is mordantly funny, fast-moving, and features an all-time great anti-hero: the wickedly charming and malevolently Machiavellian usurper who kills his way to the throne. McKellen tears into the role with scenery chewing joie de vivre, while the presence of a young pre-Iron Man Robert Downey Jr mayalso appeal to Bard newcomers (though they should be forewarned that he meets agrisly end that gives new meaning to the Latin coitus interruptus).
The first season of The Hollow Crown -- released in 2012 -- comprised beautifully produced adaptations of Richard II, Henry IV (Parts I & II), and Henry V. Ben Whishaw delivered one of the great Shakespearean performances as Richard II. It is a difficult part: as the play begins the King is a diffident, self-absorbed character with little to recommend him (not to mention he speaks in rhymed couplets--always challenging to make sound natural and unaffected). But the pathos deepens as the play progresses, and Whishaw plumbs depths of sorrow and grace with a profoundly moving sensitivity. Tom Hiddleston is a compelling Prince Hal -- King Henry V in the making -- in the two parts of Henry IV, slumming with a wonderful Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff, who taps deep reserves of dignity and poignancy as well as hilarity in the part. Unfortunately, Henry V feels somewhat rushed and perfunctory; it is anemic compared to Branagh's full-blooded version.
The second season of The Hollow Crown, released in 2016, filmed the two parts of Henry VI and Richard III. Henry VI, one of Shakespeare's earliest plays, has also long been regarded as one of his weakest -- violent and eventful, but lacking the poetry and psychological insight of the Bard at his best. These handsome productions can't entirely overcome the structural deficit of the source material. The real attraction is Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III.