Instead of Masterpiece, PBS has placed its new Hollow Crown series, The Wars of the Roses, under the banner of Great Performances. The distinction is particularly fitting. Though many are likely to tune in to see Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III (and he does not disappointment), this Shakespearean trilogy (streamlined from an original tetralogy), the production is fit to bursting with England’s finest actors, even in the smallest rolls. Sophie Okonedo, Hugh Bonneville, Stanley Townsend, and Keeley Hawes, among so many others, make even Shakespeare’s densest material feel accessible, as we observe the upheaval of Yorks and Lancasters clawing and scratching — and murdering — for control of the crown over the course of several decades.
Still, it will take some SparkNoting and WIki-ing to keep up with the intrigue for those not deeply familiar with the time period or the plays. The plotting is particularly complex, especially when it comes to the international scheming. And yet, given that complexity, it should be a surprise to no one who has read about this period in history that George R. R. Martin took a great deal of it as inspiration for Game of Thrones. But you don’t need dragons and zombies to be taken up with this story, as the acting showcase of the Hollow Crown is, again, truly astonishing. This iteration also does not hold back on any of the violence — off-stage atrocities are seen in full, gory detail.
Cumberbatch relishes his role as Richard III, and once he cuts off his emo hair after Henry VI, Part 2, and settles in Richard’s true conniving evil, he is sharp, nuanced, and surprisingly likable (one of the greatest aspects of Richard III, and what makes it my favorite Shakespeare play when in the right hands — despite it being Tudor propaganda). He gives his fantastic opening speech, stating his intention to become a villain and to lay his plots in a way that will remind some viewers of Kevin Spacey in House of Cards (Spacey has based his performance on Richard, of course, who he once played). In fact, every other performance and series you are reminded of when watching these histories, particularly Richard III, likely come from these plays. These are the OG inspirations.
But the experience is not like watching a play on screen, as Dominic Cooke has directed each part with a clear vision of filmic aesthetics, and along with that, a ghastly amount of violence (the deaths of the princes in the tower being particularly horrifying). It is fully medieval both in tongue and in tone, and even more engaging than the initial installments of the first Hollow Crown series.
The Richard III episode premieres Christmas Day, so Cumberbatch fans can watch him in that and then in Sherlock a week later. But to get the full sense of the story that was intended, give the Henry episodes a chance beforehand as well (where Cumberbatch does feature, at least in Part 2). That sense of scope — of decades of imprisonment and murder sweeping through the royal classes as waves of blood and torture — makes Richard III all the more intensely dramatic and even poignant. The Battle of Bosworth ended the Wars of the Roses, even though the new Tudor King would be initially plagued by his own issues and paranoia at Yorks attempting to rise around him. As such, this second series of the Hollow Crown ends in a much darker and more uncertain place than Tom Hiddleston’s rousing St. Crispin’s Day speech in 2012’s Henry V. And yet, in 2016 it also feels far more fitting that instead of “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” we have “now is the winter of our discontent.”
Rating: ★★★★ Very good — It’s Shakespeare
The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses will start with Henry VI Part 1 on Sunday, December 11th at 9 p.m.