Benedict Cumberbatch as the villainous Richard
If it’s propaganda you want, hire a great playwright. Seize the narrative. Shakespeare wrote Richard III under the auspices of the Tudors who overthrew Richard, the last of the Plantagenets. It’s been a lasting investment in public relations. “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” Richard cries in the fatal battle, and that at least may have been true. His bones were discovered a few years ago, under a carpark where the battlefield used to be. Examination showed that one of his shoulders was higher than the other because he had scoliosis. Spin that detail and you have the villainous Crookback.
At Richard’s reinterment, a poem was read by one of his relatives, the actor Benedict Cumberbatch. The star of Sherlock and the forthcoming Doctor Strange is Plantagenet’s second cousin 16 times removed, but before his ardent fans get any ideas about putting him on the throne, there are several thousand Plantagenet descendants walking the earth. Now Cumberbatch plays Richard III in the season finale of BBC’s The Hollow Crown. His late cousin still doesn’t get a fair shake, but as supervillains go, he’s awesome.
In this TV film adapted for the screen by Ben Power and directed by Dominic Cooke, Richard isn’t just bad. He glories in malevolence. The first image we see is that of a chessboard, a hand moving the pieces, and then the huge lump and distorted spine. It looks like some alien experiment. Cumberbatch himself has always struck me as odd-looking: beautiful from some angles, extraterrestrial from others. As he struggles to put on his shirt he announces his intention of screwing over his brothers, the king and the duke, and details his nefarious plan. Since he looks like a monster anyway, he’s going to be a monster.
Quickly he demonstrates his talent at deception, confiding his schemes to the viewer one second, and in mid-speech appearing concerned as his brother George is led away to the Tower. Just as he had planned. Later he invites us to watch as he convinces his cousin Anne (Phoebe Fox), whose husband and father-in-law he had killed, to marry him. After all the horrible things I’ve done to her, she still says yes, he gloats. Richard is intent on seeing how low he can go. It’s not merely ambition or resentment that drives him, but bottomless self-loathing. Cumberbatch shows us a man who wants the world to revile him as much as he reviles himself. He’s evil, but recognizably human.
Ben Whishaw as the whispery Richard.
In the first season the fey Richard II (Ben Whishaw), makes arbitrary decisions that lead to his being deposed by his cousin Bolingbroke (Rory Kinnear), who becomes Henry IV. Whishaw is a marvelous Richard II—he never raises his voice because everyone must hang on his every word. When the crown is taken from him, he sees himself as a Jesus figure carrying the sins of the world. Where Whishaw is wispy and otherworldly, Kinnear is stocky and grounded—his Henry reveres his king and is consumed by guilt. His actions reverberate through The Hollow Crown, setting in motion a series of power plays ending with the death of his dynasty. As Henry’s father John of Gaunt, Patrick Stewart doesn’t get much screen time, but his rendition of “This sceptred isle” reminds us why men would follow him anywhere, be he the Duke of Lancaster, Captain Picard, or Professor Xavier.
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