2012's "The Hollow Crown" was equal parts an ambitious and surprising production. Presented in four parts, it adapted "Richard II", "Henry IV: Parts 1 and 2", and "Henry V" for a modern audience abridging the story for a more feature-length presentation and updating dialogue for a more modern ear, without betraying the heart of Shakespeare's original prose. The project starred an impressive cast of British actors, although Tom Hiddleston Prince Hal and Jeremy Irons' Henry IV stood out in the realm of spellbinding. Four years later, the second Hollow Crown cycle picks up with Shakespeare's "Henry VI" before naturally progressing towards a conclusion with "Richard III". "The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses" is brought to life by the same behind-the-scenes team, but with an updated cast and in a world where "Game of Thrones" has become an HBO hit, allowing Ben Powers and Dominic Cooke to ever so slightly draw on theme, given the George R.R. Martin series is loosely based on the overarching conflict of the Lancasters and the Yorks.
In many ways, "Henry VI" echoes the open of the "Hollow Crown" saga inasmuch as the young king in this installment, portrayed with nuance and a nervous energy by Tom Sturridge is as inexperienced and ineffective a leader as Richard II. However, the story ends most comparisons there as "Henry VI" is often an unknowing audience to his own story, one that is a labrythine expedition into family squabbles, political machinations, and old-fashioned revenge. I'll be forthright in admitting, my knowledge of Shakespeare's "Henry VI" is essentially nil, but even with no real point of comparison, the four-hour adaptation (two hours for part one, and two hours for part two and three) feels rushed and heavily abridged, mostly on the front end. The first part is extremely heavy handed on exposition and set-up for a decidedly bloody and more captivating second-half. To paint a broad picture: the king's family and rivals all have their eye on his throne, alliances are formed and broken, ad nauseum, before the real players emerge from the shadows.
The adaptation of Shakespeare's works have all the hallmarks of the bard's obsessions with family and power, but the influence of Game of Thrones, in particular the hushed candlelit machinations permeate the production and its only during some standout soliloquies (in particular Henry VI's breakdown on the battlefield in the second part of the feature) that we are are reminded of the authorship. That said, the modern influence on the story does allow for some exciting moments and just as things are starting to wain at the end of the first part, a bloody siege opens the second and with it comes one of the program's shining gems: Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III. Cumberbatch gives a restrained performance in "Henry VI: Parts 2 and 3" before commanding the screen in his titular outing. It's both a dialogue rich performance and one of skillful physical presence, with Richard's physical ailment present on screen but never in an exaggerated fashion.
I can't with a straight face make an argument that Benedict Cumberbatch is intended to be a huge selling point for this production, featured prominently on the cover and receiving top billing, he's a huge catch for the producers. However, for my money Sophie Okonedo's performance as Queen Margaret is even more captivating and a breath of fresh air. Okonedo is an actress of color, playing the role of white Frenchwoman. At the end of the day, Okonedo's performance is an epic journey of a character who initially appears to be a background player that swiftly and soundly demonstrates she is more ferocious and fearless in her vision than any man in the play; Okonedo holds her own in every scene she's given dialogue of importance and often comes out dominating the production. If there is a solitary positive from the "Game of Thrones" influence on Shakespeare's work here, it's in letting Okonedo's Queen Margaret be a strong female character without ever having to draw special attention to gender.
At almost six and a half hours "The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses" is not a mild commitment. While the "Richard III" adaptation could honestly stand on its own, the "Henry VI" adaptation is a good, but not overall great production. It suffers from a very slow start and spotty story that is hard to follow on an initial viewing. The second half of the story has more breathing room with action sequences breaking up the flow and Henry VI's battlefield breakdown making a vie for the crown (no pun intended) of best scene in the entire series. Still, even four years removed from the original "Hollow Crown" I miss the intimacy and more restrained production of the lengthier first cycle. The "Game of Thrones" influence is felt here and for all the good things it does, most importantly, helping to drawn in an audience who might have otherwise bypassed it, I was left wanting more from the first part of this tale.THE VIDEO
The 1.78:1 1080p transfer is a stunning upgrade from the original "Hollow Crown" series of just a few years ago. The HD upgrade allows detail to pop from the screen and medieval color palette of grays, greens, and more royal colors depending on the setting are all faithfully reproduced. There are some interior shots that look just too pristine and a slight drop in detail gives indication of DNR, which does cheapen the look of the production ever so slightly. Contrast levels are a little on the intense side with darker scenes, both in dim corridors and smoky towns under siege of moonlight, but not to a level where critical action is obscured from view.
The English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is a tad on the quiet side, most apparent during "Henry VI: Part 1". A clear track through and through, there are some signs of life when the story enters territory involving battles and the surrounds add some atmosphere while dialogue remains focused front-and-center with a rich warmth that accentuates the classic work of Shakespeare. Overall, it's a well-balanced track for the most part, with only a few instances of hushed dialogue being followed by a louder than desired musical cue or effect. English SDH subtitles are included, although due to the source material, it's a shame proper subtitles weren't included as well.
Bonus features consist of a very brief behind-the-scenes featurette, "The Making of the Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses" as well as five-minutes of deleted scenes from both installments of "Henry VI."
"The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses" may very well surpass its predecessor in terms of production value and most captivating performances; it does fail, just ever so slightly, to meet the bar in terms of overall cohesion and dramatic interest. Despite a lengthy runtime, the production feels abridged, even when I can't tell you what's missing and a shaky first act may test the patience of many viewers. The second and third acts of the overall production though definitely live up to the quality of the original and are at times heartstopping in their dramatic impact. The technical production of this release is a true treat, not perfect, but eye catching (and ear catching) enough that I hope the original "Hollow Crown" gets an HD re-release. Recommended.