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Three BBC America Shows to Break Your Heart

I’ve been gone a long time, and for that I am truly sorry. But here is post full of things to distract you from my lack of being around so long. This year BBC America has broadcast three shows that are really, really good at not only getting you way too invested in the characters, but are also good at breaking your heart into little pieces. Not only that, but they are genuinely brilliant shows. So, here they are:

The Hour

Series 2 aired this past year, but Series 1 is also good. Unfortunately, the show was canceled after Series 2 despite writer Abi Morgan having won an Emmy Award for writing the series. The Hour takes place in the 1950’s and revolves around a team of journalists making a new show called The Hour, a weekly news show produced by the BBC. It’s “the hour you can’t miss.” Leading the team is Bel Rowley (Romola Garai), a brilliant journalist who is a pioneer in her field simply for being a working woman in a time when women didn’t really work in high positions or have respect. Also working with her is her long-time friend Freddy Lyon (Ben Whishaw), who will stop at nothing to dig out the whole truth for a story and then some. There’s Hector Madden (Dominic West), the host of the show who isn’t so much a good journalist as he is a good face for the camera. There’s also quite a few other characters who get to share the spotlight, and their lives are also examined in the context of the news program they’re putting out.

And what a news program it is. The first series deals with post-World War II Britain and the fight in Egypt over the Suez Canal. The government, who owns the BBC, tries to stop The Hour from broadcasting anything too controversial, while Bel and Freddy uncover a story that could reveal uncomfortable truths about the nature of government. The finale is an awesome commentary on the interplay between government censorship and the media, and is still relevant today. Series 2 examines police corruption in London, at a time where the country is spending huge amounts of money on defending against a nuclear threat that might not come, while in the city crime runs rampant and the owner of a “gentlemen’s club” has police in the palm of his hand.

All of these are fascinating issues on their own, but they are added to some very well-done character developments as well. Bel and Hector have an affair, and Hector’s wife, Marnie, has to find a way to deal with it. Freddy loves Bel but is convinced she doesn’t love him back, and Bel won’t admit that she might feel attracted to Freddy. Various other characters go through life changing events, and they all still have to put journalism at the front of their minds because that’s what matters. As Freddy says of Bel, “cut you to your core and you’ll find news running through your spine.” Journalism and personal matters conflict with each other, and it is these conflicts that give the show some of its most heart-breaking scenes. The end of series 2 and, by extension, the end of the entire show, is definitely something that brings on tears and feelings of mourning what could have been.

Broadchurch

Broadchurch is a new show, currently having just finished its first series, about a crime taking place in a small Scottish town on the seaside. A young boy named Danny goes missing in the middle of the night, and detectives Hardy (David Tennant) and Miller (Olivia Coleman) are forced to work together to take on the case. Adding to the tension is the fact that Hardy took the job Miller wanted while she was on vacation. They find Danny dead, murdered at the beach, and soon the whole town is wondering who did it. And the town is small, so everybody knows everybody. Except for Hardy, who is the only stranger. Miller finds herself in a strange position by being one of the leads on the case but also extremely close to the affected family.

The show is heartbreaking in that there are scenes that ring very true to grief and desperation interspersed with what one might think of as traditional police procedural proceedings. It’s got a lot more emotion than your average cop show, because the crime is so close to many in the police department and because everyone knows each other in the town–the only outsider is Hardy. There is a lot of time taken to show Danny’s family grieving, how his mother is recently pregnant, the father keeping a secret, and the teenage sister not knowing how to cope. Throughout the show it is revealed that almost everyone has secrets, and they were kept secrets for a reason, and relationships are strained, even at a time when people need those relationships the most. Hardy has a big secret, and it’s one that makes him desperate to finish the case despite his failing health and conflicts with Miller.

So there’s all that ongoing emotional stuff, but the end is really the thing that will break you. There is a twist–we find out who Danny’s killer is. But finding out isn’t satisfying. Instead it breaks everything, devastates the town, and tears relationships apart.

Orphan Black

Time to add some science fiction to the list! Orphan Black is a great example of excellent writing and acting and great execution on the part of the directors. If you’re looking for good, realistic science fiction that’ll have you emotionally invested in everything that happens, this is it. Which is good, because science fiction often tosses aside emotion for plot. Not so here.

Orphan Black starts with Sarah Manning, a con artist of sorts who returns to New York after some time away with the intention of taking her daughter, Kira, from her foster mother and going to live a better life. While at a train station she sees a woman who looks just like her kill herself by stepping in front of an on-coming train and, on a whim, Sarah takes her stuff. She finds out that this woman is named Beth Childs and that she’s a detective with a nice apartment and, importantly, a lot of money. But when Sarah impersonates Beth, she’s pulled into a trial at the police station where she finds out that Beth had been suspended for shooting a woman while on duty. But that’s not all.

Beth has also been in contact with a woman named Alison. And then Sarah, as Beth, meets a woman who looks just like her but is killed almost immediately. She finds out, through a meeting with Alison and a scientist-grad-student named Cosima that there are multiple clones of her running around. They all look exactly the same (but different, given styles and hair stuff and things like that) and are all played by the brilliant Tatiana Maslany. They also have different personalities: Alison is a high-strung soccer mom, Sarah a tough city girl, and Cosima an enthusiastic and quite hip science enthusiast.

They find out that one of their clones, Helena, is trying to kill them because she’s been told that she’s the original. And then they find out that they all have monitors who take medical examinations from each of them while they sleep, and make sure that they don’t become “self-aware” so to speak. Basically, they are part of a huge unethical science experiment. And as they unearth more about who created them, where they came from, and why Helena is so disturbed, they find a lot of things that point to their lives being in serious danger.

And the heartbreak? Well, it comes from these women finding out that they are clones, science experiments, for the most part. But there is also how it affects their relationships. Cosima falls in love with her monitor. Sarah’s involvement in finding out about her origins puts her daughter, Kira, in danger, because none of the other clones have had children and therefore, if their creators find out about Kira, she could be experimented on and worse. Helena’s story is sad for a lot of reasons, because she is the one that’s gone so far astray that it seems impossible to bring her back into some semblance of a family. The series finale takes all of this into account: the relationships, the stakes for each of the clones, and what it means to be a clone, and brings it to a devastating climax.

So there you have it: emotional journalism, emotional police procedurals, and emotional science fiction. Three things that often sacrifice emotion for plot, and the BBC managed to make all three of them in a year and make them heartbreaking. But that’s okay, because all three are brilliant television and well worth watching.

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Holiday Entertainment

It’s that time of year! Namely, the time of year where everyone is home for the holidays and gets bored and needs stuff to do. Having been doing lots of stuff recently, I have some recommendations. And I hope that my recommendations are worthy.

Film

A lot of noteworthy films have come out this year in theaters. Currently out and really really good movies that you should see are Life of PiLincoln, and Skyfall. Coming soon movies that look really good are Les MiserablesThe Hobbit, and The Impossible. Basically, it’s just been a really good year for movies. Life of Pi is a story about a boy who is stuck at sea in a lifeboat with a tiger for nearly a year, and uses beautiful imagery and storytelling to make a fantastic film. Lincoln has some very good actors and keeps your attention even though you know what’s going to happen. Skyfall is the best of the newer Bond movies, focusing on Bond’s relationship with MI6 when the new villain threatens the organization. Coming out, The Hobbit looks stunning and Peter Jackson is a great director so, hopefully, it will be a great movie. Les Mis also looks good but could go either way. The Impossible, the true story of a family vacationing during the 2004 tsunami, is heartbreaking and has gotten good reviews in Europe, so it’s worth checking out.

If you happen to have theatres that show older movies from earlier in the fall, then you should definitely attempt to see Cloud AtlasLooper, and Argo. All three movies are huge accomplishments in storytelling and are innovative, unique stories in their own right. Looper didn’t really get a lot of advertising so I think quite a few people missed out, but if you like gritty, realistic sci-fi and time travel then this is your film. Cloud Atlas also missed out on an audience due to people not knowing quite what it is, because it’s six wildly different stories in one film, but the film is beautiful and shows how humans are all interconnected through six amazing different story lines. Argo is still playing in a lot of places because it’s the fantastic story of the Iranian hostage crisis.

Or you could catch up on the various super-hero movies, good in their own right, that have come to a conclusion this year. The Batman trilogy of Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises is a dark and exciting take on the Batman story and well worth watching. If you saw the Avengers, or want to see it, it’s worth also checking out Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America because they are all entertaining and provide insight into the various characters. Lastly, the new Amazing Spider-man came out and Andrew Garfield good in the part, so it’s worth a watch.

Television

There’s lots of good television to watch or catch up on as well. I recommend, highly, The Hour, which tells the story of a BBC news program in the 1950’s that strives to tell the truth. Journalists Bel, Freddie, and Hector have to go up against the British government in order to give a true look at what’s going on in the country during the beginnings of the Cold War. The show has some amazing acting and storytelling, and also makes quite a lot of good commentary on journalism. Series 2 is airing now.

Doctor Who is coming out with a new Christmas special, introducing new companion Clara. If you haven’t seen the first half of series 7, in which Amy and Rory left, now’s a good time. It starts off questionably but gets going by the third episode to end spectacularly. If you haven’t watched Who before, I’d suggest starting all the way with 2005’s Series 1, with the Ninth Doctor, and working from there. It’s quite a fun ride.

Sherlock is not coming out with anything knew, but with both lead actors starring in new films, it’s worth checking out for anyone who hasn’t watched. It’s a modern retelling of the Sherlock Holmes stories that is compelling and fantastic. There are two series out, and they both have cliffhangers that leave you wanting more.

For Shakespeare lovers, BBC came out with a series entitled The Hollow Crown over the summer, featuring the plays Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, and Henry V. Some fantastic actors filled in the roles, with Ben Whishaw as Richard II, Jeremy Irons as Henry IV, and Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal/Henry V. It’s well worth checking out if you want to see an extremely well done take of Shakespeare’s histories.

Books

As a student who doesn’t get too much time to read, I can only recommend a few, but I can promise you that they are good. First, I’d like to recommend Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell–if you can’t see the movie, definitely read the book before it comes out on DVD. It’s six vastly different stories nested within one another that show how, ultimately, we are all connected.

For the history lovers out there, Chinese Lessons by John Pomfret is a good look at what communist China was like after the Cultural Revolution, told through the eyes of the author when he studied abroad in China shortly after the country was opened to students from the West, and includes the stories of several fellow classmates he met that, against all odds, ended up going to university with him.

Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh is the story of a group of heroin addicts in Edinburgh trying to make their way through life, trying to get clean and failing, and ultimately trying to find a way out. It’s a good book with interesting narration (phonetic, in the style of a thick Scottish accent) and a great movie adaptation that also shouldn’t be missed.

If you like Game of Thrones or are a fan of the BBC series Merlin, or simply like tales of knights and magic, read The Once and Future King by T.H. White. This novel tells the story of how King Arthur became king, how Merlin taught him to view the world and then continued to be his friend during kingship, and how Arthur’s marriage and kingship fell apart. It’s epic, it’s beautiful, it’s funny, it’s heartbreaking. Read it.

I hope that everyone has a fantastic holiday and gets to do a lot of fun things before next year eats up time again.

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Review: Cloud Atlas (Film)

First things first-the book Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, is amazing. You should all buy it and read it. And read it again.

Second, the movie is also awesome, and you should go see it. I’ll not say much about the actors in this review-they all did a great job, playing multiple roles, and definitely brought what was needed to each character. No, the interesting thing about Cloud Atlas is not the acting so much as the directorial choices taken.

For those of you who aren’t aware, Cloud Atlas, the book, is a story in six parts-six different stories nestled within each other, each told split in half except for the sixth one. It works like this: First we read half of the journal of Adam Ewing, a lawyer from San Francisco sailing in the Pacific. Then we get half of the story of Robert Frobisher, a young man who becomes the protege of an old musician and writes his masterpiece, told in letters to his lover, Sixsmith. Next, the first half of a story about journalist Luisa Rey’s investigation into the faults of a nuclear power plant and the people who want to kill her rather than risk her exposing the truth. Then, half the story of Timothy Cavendish, a publisher who gets in serious trouble and ends up in a nursing home, and tries to escape. After that, half of the story of Somni 451, a ‘fabricant’ or synthesized human built for the sole purpose of service (slavery), who becomes enlightened and involved in a movement to stop fabricants being treated like slaves by ‘pureblood’ people. Finally we are told the story of Zach’ry in a post nuclear-winter world, on the island of Hawaii, where he meets a ‘prescient’ who gives him a view of the outside world and how humanity has destroyed (and will rebuild) itself. And then, in the second half of the novel, each of these stories finishes itself.

David Mitchell himself said that if the directors of the film were to adhere to the format of the book, the movie would suck. The movie, as is, stands at three hours long, which is actually pretty modest considering that it tells six stories that each could be movies in and of themselves.

The directors did something rather amazing with each story–they found common threads in different parts of each story and then intercut scenes that shared similar themes, essentially allowing for each story to parallel the others, emphasizing the message that in different places, and even in different times, humans are all connected. Now, having read the book, I didn’t pick up that the stories paralleled each other down to the smallest of scenes, but the directors painstakingly worked to point this out in every sequence. We get scenes of love from all six stories put together, scenes of escape from all six, scenes of longing and desire, scenes of freedom. Each sequence, rather than telling one of the six stories, unites most or all of the six under a common theme. And for a movie about lives being connected, this is a genius move that works far better visually and emotionally on screen than the books’ format would have.

And even though there are six stories, you feel keenly for each one. Each story involves a life being changed, sometimes for the better, arguably all for the better. Each story is satisfying in its own right. And each story makes you feel like, although they are all vastly different, they are also the same–that even in different situations people experience similar emotions and revelations and desires all across time.

Another interesting decision on the part of the directors was to have actors take on multiple parts, so that somewhat familiar faces would be in each story, further driving home the interconnectedness theme. Actors play different genders, races, possibly even species (if the Devil can be called that). Some people feel that the race-bending of actors is controversial, especially given that no male Asian actors were cast, so all of the male Asian parts were played by white males. However, as the theme of the movie is interconnectivity, and there are a number of races still represented within the main acting pool, I find it interesting rather than offensive that the directors chose to show that if humans are interconnected, and possibly even reincarnated, that they didn’t have to stay the same race or gender. And reincarnation was a possibility thrown out there. This gender/race changing of actors does show that no matter who you are, you could just as easily be someone completely different. And in the end, we’re all human, so it shouldn’t matter. At least not in the message that the movie-makers are trying to tell us.

A few other notes of the less philosophical kind: the visuals are stunning. We get treated to vastly different settings: a ship in the middle of the Pacific, 1970’s gritty San Francisco, Edinburgh and Cambridge, a futuristic, sprawling neo-Seoul, and a post-nuclear Hawaii. All very well done, all visually pleasing. There are some graphic elements to the visuals as well-the movie certainly deserves its R rating and doesn’t pull punches. They show a man thrown off a building hitting the ground in a burst of blood (highly unexpected, movies usually cut away at that point, and this elicited gasps from the theatre). They show one man painstakingly slicing another’s throat open. People are shown shot in the head, complete with aftermath. There is nudity, and sex. And yet all of this makes everything more real, emerges us more in the story. Not only do we get the beauty, but we also get the full harshness of the world as well.

The music created for the film is fantastically beautiful, which is almost a necessity, considering the film’s title is also the title of what is supposed to be a fantastic sextet composed by Robert Frobisher, the young musical protege. The sextet itself is full of emotion and longing. It’s not a happy piece, but it is a resonating one. And the rest of the music is wonderful as well.

The music also serves as transitions between stories, or as the link that ties each story together within a sequence. There are also voice-overs, which most of the time are excerpts from the book, where most of the stories are in some variation of first-person (through journals, letters, storytelling, or interviewing) and these work fantastically as well, to transition or to link if the narration has a theme that is common to everything else. For a film that must skip around more than most other films ever would, the transitions are done well, coherently, and generally feel seamless, like they were meant to be rather than slap-dashedly thrown around.

I highly recommend going to see Cloud Atlas. It differs from the novel, but in a good way. Indeed, not only in structure, but also in some of the stories–you might find that while some of the stories have taken away certain things, or changed certain things, none of them feels any less resonating than their novel counterparts. Indeed, some have even more emotion. The film is successful in showing that no matter where we live, or when we live, humanity is connected by common emotions, desires, situations, and types of people. Even if you don’t believe in reincarnation, the thought of humanity being connected by anything is a comforting one. Cloud Atlas will make you feel strongly, whether it be joy, despair, horror, excitement, anger, awe, or all of the above. Any film that can elicit that kind of emotion is worth seeing.

Other info:

Cloud Atlas is approximately 3 hours long. It’s rated R for language, nudity, and graphic depictions of violence the likes of which you’ve probably never seen before. Also beware overwhelming emotions.

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Review: The Hour and Current Journalism

Journalism is in the air! This is the general feel of BBC’s show The Hour,

Bel (Romola Garai), Hector (Dominic West), and Freddie (Ben Whishaw) are the three main journalists on The Hour.

which follows three journalists-Bel, Freddie, and Hector-as they put together a show called “The Hour” to report on current events. The series takes place in the 1950’s during the Suez crisis, and the show, which promises to be breakthrough journalism, struggles to uncover the truth behind Britain’s involvement in Egypt.

There are a lot of personal conflicts in the show, as would be expected of a drama, but everything in the preceding five episodes builds up to a finale that is not only personal, but is also full of commentary about how journalism works and how journalists are limited.

Bel is the producer of this new show, and Freddie and Hector are reporters. There is a constant conflict at work between all three of them-finding out the truth behind stories and keeping your career as a respected journalist. As they report on the Suez crisis, government officials keep a close watch on the show, and in the last episode go so far as to dictate what the show can and cannot air.

The real issue comes when Freddie, the young, investigative journalist of the lot, decides to investigate the death of Ruth Elms, a childhood friend involved in shady activities. The government claims her death was suicide, but Freddie believes it is something else, and he investigates. This leads him close to finding out certain truths about his government, spies, and the way international politics work. This also has the government on his tail, forcing him to stop his investigation before he finds out anything too damaging.

Freddie is constantly finding stories that challenge his government, and this is why he becomes the focal point for government agents. Bel must decide whether to indulge Freddie and allow his stories on air, at the risk of her career, and Hector, as the leading anchor, plays a large part in deciding just how these stories are transmitted. All three of their careers are on the line.

And then Freddie finds out that Ruth Elms was killed by the British government because she knew of a plan for British spies to assassinate Egyptian president Nasser in order to end the Suez crisis. Bel allows him to put Ruth’s father, Lord Elms, on air, where he reveals that the government is hiding things from the public. Even more daring is Hector’s decision to let Freddie interview Elms, because Freddie, unlike Hector, pushes his interviewees harder, and he gets Lord Elms to admit, on national television, the implication Ruth Elm’s death has for the honesty of the British government and what they hide from the public to keep the public from revolting.

And then the government shuts the program off.

Bel is fired from her job as producer. Freddie and Hector’s careers are as good as done. The government is furious.

And this episode is still relevant today.

Perhaps there is not a crisis going on, but journalists are always asked to take their sources at their word, and to be objective. This is how new journalists are taught to report–without opinions, without subjectivity, without questioning their sources. Yet sources have biases-as The Hour demonstrates, the British government is biased towards the British government, truth be damned, and that goes for any government.

Journalism is changing. People are becoming more aware of a lack of questioning sources and want that changed. Independent news programs challenge the information they are given, and dig deeper, in the hopes of finding something closer to the truth. Journalists are beginning to understand that what is regarded as professionalism-objectivity, by simply reporting what they are told-is not always what’s best for their audiences. There is a difference between what sources what the public to hear, and what the public needs to hear, and more and more journalists are starting to report what the public needs to hear.

There is still objectivity in the newsroom. There is still the tendency to report straight from the sources’ mouth without questioning what is being said. But that may very well change as journalism changes and as people become more aware of how the media works. And although subjective reporting can be a career-risk, it can also be worth it, in the end, if only because a more truthful story is told.

One could say that for the journalists of The Hour, their journey into truth-finding ends unhappily. Their show is ruined, their careers are as good as dead, and they are watched by their government. Yet, as Bel and Freddie walk out of the darkened studio Freddie tells Bel that they have another story to write.

The moral of the story is, journalists should be more willing to dig deeper for the truth, because there will always be an audience willing to listen.

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Review-The Hollow Crown “Presume Not That I Am the Thing I Was”

It’s not often that Shakespeare is on our televisions (and indeed, in the U.S. Shakespeare is almost never on our televisions), but this summer the BBC decided that Shakespeare would be the main act of the summer. They aired ‘The Hollow Crown’, a four-part mini-series consisting of four of Shakespeare’s history plays—Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V. Not only that, but the BBC tied The Hollow Crown to the Olympics by saying that Shakespeare represents a huge part of British culture. They hoped to bring Shakespeare to mainstream audience, to pique interest in the magnificent stories that he wrote and the excellent job directors and actors could do bringing them to life. I can attest to that culture, having studied Shakespeare last year in London and having seen many productions of his plays—England is truly alive and well with Shakespeare’s work, certainly more so than the United States.

The idea behind producing all four of Shakespeare’s histories is to make an epic story, which provides more depth than simply adapting one of the plays could provide. Here, we get to see the journey of kings, sad and triumphant, peaceful and warlike. In Richard II, we see how Henry IV becomes king. Henry IV is all about Henry’s son, Prince Hal, going from being an irresponsible young rapscallion (yes, I did use that word) to realizing his duty as the next in line for the throne. In Henry V, that same Prince is now a king, determined to prove that he is a good king and one to be taken seriously.

These plays could be very boring, considering that the story of the succession of kings is ultimately a story full of politics, and politics, while intriguing, can be a bit dull at times. Indeed, the dullness of politics has its moments in these productions, but those moments are few. Instead, Shakespeare’s plays and the resultant productions focus on the personal stories—this isn’t just about the succession of Kings, but about men growing into the roles of kings, or relinquishing them, in their own ways. They are personal journals, in which the kings, while divine rulers to their subjects, are shown in much more human, personal moments, so they become men that we can sympathize and relate to. And overall, the series is successful in creating not only good stories, but characters we can relate to even as they strive to be greater than most.

Richard II

Richard II is a Shakespeare play that is rarely adapted to the screen, and for good reason. Not much happens. Richard is king of England, and two of his subjects get into a quarrel. He banishes them both, and leaves to go wage a war that people don’t want. He is a young king, and some of his subjects think he is unfit to rule. One of the men he banished, Henry Bolingbroke, returns to England and, with some help, takes the throne from Richard, and weeds out those in the kingdom who would betray him. He grips England with an iron fist.

Ben Whishaw as Richard in the mirror scene.

In this production, Richard II is played by Ben Whishaw. Dark haired, pale skinned, and always dressed in white, Richard is given a lot of visual symbolism. He is often made to look like Christ, both when he spreads his arms wide in front of the throne as a king before his subjects and later, when he looks Christ-like in death with an arrow sticking out of his side (and his chest, and his shoulder), the picture of sacrifice. Ben Whishaw plays Richard well, as a delicate, sometimes sassy, sensitive king. He is very obviously very young, both in appearance and action. He doesn’t know quite how to run a kingdom, and isn’t quite strong enough to go head-to-head with those that criticize him; instead, he punishes them. We feel for him in his sensitive moments, such as when he can’t bear to part with the crown, but we also can understand why he doesn’t make a good king.

The usurper is Henry Bolingbroke, played by Rory Kinnear, who does a good job playing Richard’s foil, in that not only is he older in appearance, but he acts more like a king-he is strong-willed, and a leader, and determined. He is also ruthless, in some ways; he demands the heads of traitors. Yet he is also respectful; we learn that for all he wanted Richard locked away, he did not want Richard dead. And Kinnear convinces us, more than Richard ever could, that he is a king, even before the crown is on his head.

There are also other actors who light up the screen when they are on. Patrick Stewart plays John of Gaunt, briefly, in the beginning. This is Henry’s father, who is a harsh critic of Richard, who stands up to him, and then dies, and Stewart allows him to make a mark. David Morrissey is steadfast as Northumberland, one of Henry’s supporters.

Besides the actors, the cinematography itself is enough to steal some scenes. We get

Richard in the final scenes.

wide, sweeping shots of green fields. There are many scenes where we see turquoise water and the waves lapping up upon a clear, pristine sandy beach. Even smaller scale scenes have there moments—Richard and his cousins sit upon a stony bridge surrounded by green trees, feet hanging over a steady stream on a clear, sunny summer’s day.

The costuming is equally wonderful to look at. Richard wears white-gold garments that are made for a king of extravagance, while Henry goes for imposing dark colors.

If this production is anything, it is a production meant to be looked at. What the script cannot provide in action the production makes up for by being candy for the eye. The film, at two hours and twenty minutes long, can drag in places, but there’s always something to watch, whether it be the costumes, the scenery, or the symbolism. At one point Richard looks in a mirror and smashes it, declaring that he is no longer king. The imagery is heavy, and there is no pulling punches, but it works to make the story more cinematic than the script originally is.

Henry IV Parts 1 and 2

If Richard II is a production of images, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 is a production of actions and words. The script has more to give for television purposes, in that more happens, and faster. There is definitive action. As a result, the production doesn’t need as many lingering shots or symbolism. Instead, the story is more practical and stark, moving on when it needs to, with very little in the way of scenery to speak of. It isn’t pretty to look at, but it is captivating to watch.

Henry IV, as a whole, is the coming-of-age story of Prince Hal, King Henry IV’s son. Hal is irresponsible and keeps bad company and seemingly has no concept of the fact that he is soon to be king. On the other end of the spectrum is Northumberland’s son, Hotspur, who is noble and a respected warrior, who eventually decides to lead a civil war against the king. Prince Hal decides to take up the responsibility of war and challenges Hotspur. This is his first step towards being worthy of the title of king. This is what makes up Part 1.

Part 2 focuses on Prince Hal’s friend, Falstaff, a drunkard of a man who steals, lies, and does everything to excess. He has no responsibilities, and he certainly never grew up, despite being an old man. Yet, with Henry IV so wrapped up in being a king and keeping his crown, Richard’s death still looming over him and causing unrest, Falstaff has become a sort of surrogate father to Hal, if a very bad one. This second part examines Falstaff’s character in parallel to Prince Hal’s, and what it is that eventually makes Hal realize that in order to become a good king, he must cast Falstaff and the rest of his bawdy friends off and make a new life for himself. And it isn’t easy, but it is necessary.

Henry IV is played by Jeremy Irons, and Irons plays him as stern and always aware of his

Jeremy Irons as Henry IV

duty. He is tired, in this production, and as Hal points out, the crown has eaten away at him. And Irons makes his character look it—the concerns over his son and the civil war and everything else wear him down until, sick and frail, he is close to panicked that he will not be able to impart on Hal the ways of kingship. He and Hal have no real relationship to speak of, save for an undercurrent of resentment, until the end, when both accept the future—Henry’s death and Hal’s kingship.

Tom Hiddleston makes us invested in Hal’s journey, by playing him as a rogue but with an undercurrent of something more serious. He is aware of responsibility but does not take it, not until he needs to, and he is also innocent to what being a prince and, later, a king entails. This is most obvious during his battle with Hotspur, when he comes from the battle gasping and faces Hotspur wide-eyed and almost desperate before managing to get a hold of his anger, whereas Hotspur is self assured-battle is where he belongs. In Part 2 Hiddleston brings more sensitivity to the performance when he realizes what being King has done to his father, and what he must do.

Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal, shortly before becoming King.

It is the last part of Henry IV Part 2 that Hiddleston shines the most, accepting responsibility for being the king and mourning his father’s death. Hiddleston allows Hal to lose his carefree attitude and replace it with something more regal, and determined to prove that he is responsible and ready to be king. He doesn’t lose his sensitivity, or his humanity, but he allows it to show to different people—his father and his court. With Falstaff, he is cold and aloof, every part the king to make it known that he has rejected his formal life. He is not the thing he once was, he tells Falstaff, and we can all see it in the way he holds himself, the look in his eye, and the way he talks. His fathers’ death has changed him.

Simon Russell Beale is Falstaff, known for being one of the most bawdy characters in any of Shakespeare’s works. Beale, however, makes Falstaff a little more well-rounded (no pun intended, maybe) by showing that Falstaff does, in fact, find some affection in his friendship with Prince Hal. Sure, he often uses the friendship to save himself from punishment, and he uses everyone around him to his own ends, even claiming to have killed Hotspur despite that honor being Prince Hal’s, but there is an undercurrent of genuine affection towards Hal, and sadness when Hal rejects him. By the time we get to Henry V, Falstaff is nothing more but a shell of his former self. This performance works on many levels by making Falstaff more interesting. However, during Henry IV Part 2 Falstaff spends most of the play being grim, which makes his sadness at the end stand out less than it should—after all, Falstaff should be reasonably merry until he absolutely has reason not to be. And he only has reason to be truly grim when Hal rejects him.

Part I tends to be more interesting than Part 2, because there is a lot going on—we are introduced to characters, and given a civil war to worry about, and everything ends with a defining moment for Hal. Part 2 picks up towards the end, when we see Falstaff’s hope that once Hal is king, life will be good for him, juxtaposed with Hal’s realization that he must cast off his old life to be a good king. One of the most powerful moments is between Hal and Henry IV, when Henry IV tells him that he hopes his rein will be more peaceful, because he would gain kingship by divine right (inheritance) rather than through usurping the crown.

Henry V

Henry V picks up a few years after the previous installment, when Prince Hal, now Henry V, is enjoying a peaceful rein. He is a good king, but there is a problem with France, which owns some lands that should, by rights, belong to Henry. So, they decide to fight for those lands against France in order to bring peace to the nations.

More than that, Henry V is the story about a king who realizes that, at the heart of everything, he is also simply a man, like his subjects. What is most interesting about this production is the way in which it differs from the past. The most recent production of Henry V had Kenneth Branagh in the lead role (and directing) and was big. Branagh played Henry as a confident king, one who would rally whole troops with inspiring speeches, one who was self-assured.

Tom Hiddleston as Henry V.

Tom Hiddleston goes for a different approach—he makes Henry V’s story not only that of a king who is a man, but of a man who is trying to prove that he is a good king, despite his past. The major speeches of this play are where the change is most obvious—instead of being delivered to whole armies, Hiddleston’s Henry delivers to handfuls of people, addressing individuals even, making the speeches more personal, and all the while seeming like he’s trying to reassure himself as much as those he speaks to. And this emphasizes the fact that Henry is also a man like his subjects, because he, too, has his doubts, and Tom Hiddleston plays upon those uncertainty well. His king is sure of himself when he needs to be, in front of others, but is much less sure when alone, or disguising himself as a commoner, or while trying to woo Katherine, or in prayer. But he is still a king, nonetheless, one that owns the battlefields and fights in Agincourt until the very end, determined to win. The performance makes you feel for Henry more, and as a result you become more invested in his story.

Edward Akrout plays the Dauphin as an angry young man, similar to Hotspur in Henry IV. The Dauphin is the prince of France, and is opposite of Henry in many ways; in that he is angrier and more eager for war. But they also share similarities: they are both determined to prove themselves, they are young, and they are proud and will not back down.

John Hurt voices the Chorus, which is handled interestingly, through interludes that carry the narration forward in time, the Chorus being a voice-over to visuals that show the passage of time and allow everything to flow smoothly. Interestingly enough, we find out that Hurt’s character is not the just Chorus, but is Falstaff’s boy, who goes to war in France as a child and witnesses Henry’s sudden death years later. We get a closure with him, having followed him through the story, always in the background, the only thing carried from Henry’s old life to his new one. He becomes an old man, and stands by Henry’s old throne, and delivers the Chorus’ last lines, closing the final chapter of an epic story of kings.

So is it worth watching? Yes. The Hollow Crown is beautiful produced, directed, and acted, and if there were ever a way to see all of Shakespeare’s histories, this is it. Put together, the histories become one epic story of kings rising and falling, of triumph and failure, love and loss, coming of age and taking on responsibility. Most of all, these stories are about change. People change, times change, but each change brings on a new story.

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The Hollow Crown: TV Shout-Out

This isn’t a review so much as it is pointing out awesome.

If you like Shakespeare, as I do, then now is as good a time as any to check out BBC’s series The Hollow Crown, which is in the middle of its 4 play series. The series adapts the plays Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V. Richard II and Henry IV Part 1 have aired already, and they are brilliant.

Richard II Review: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/9365813/The-Hollow-Crown-Richard-II-BBC-Two-review.html

Henry IV P1 Review: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/9382635/The-Hollow-Crown-Henry-IV-Part-1-BBC-Two-review.html

As someone who loves Shakespeare and who spent last summer watching 9 Shakespeare plays in London and Stratford-Upon-Avon (home of the Royal Shakespeare Company), this series has made my summer a lot more enjoyable in terms of entertainment. The filmography and acting are superb. Richard II has amazing scenery, and Henry IV Part I boasts some amazing acting.

And we still have Henry IV P2 and Henry V to go! And I’m sure they’ll be equally as fantastic.

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