Film Review – King John (1984)

We’re back to our good old standard, The Complete Dramatic Works of Shakespeare series from the BBC. Oh, BBC of the 1980s, sometimes I wonder how you went from making films that I suffer through in the hopes of something worth mocking to making awesome things like Sherlock. How does that happen BBC? And can we travel back in time to fix this series? Please?

This film is the level of bad where I gave it only half my attention and devoted the other half to Twitter, Draw Something, Solitaire, or twiddling my thumbs. Which is the not subtle way of saying that this film is boring as all get out. It’s so dull that there are absolutely no screencaps to be found of this two and a half hour odyssey. These films are the reason that students dread Shakespeare. It is more than possible to make these plays interesting, and dare I say it, even fun to watch, but this film is an epic fail.

Let’s start with the sets. They are very obviously stage sets, with castle walls that have no more width than your typical sheet of plywood, and large painted sheets being used as backdrops for the “outdoors.” The costumes aren’t worth writing home about and although many of them are designed to look rich and luxurious as befits royalty, they just look really fake and probably uncomfortable. The one exception to this is Blanch’s dress, which is actually quite pretty, but she doesn’t get enough screen time to really make a difference. Constance’s crown is the prettiest of all the crowns that are adorning heads (and there are quite a few) but all of them look pretty uncomfortable. Also, let it be noted that there are exactly three haircuts men have in this film: long hair and beard, short hair and beard, short hair and no beard. No faux hawks here, I’m afraid.

And with that over, let’s talk about the actual acting and film choices. The only character I actually liked was Bastard who actually has some charm and is interesting to watch. He cheekily addresses his soliloquies and asides directly to the camera, but the poor man cannot save this film. The actor playing John has about three expressions, one of which made me laugh out loud at its ridiculousness. He plays John as weaselly, cowardly, and downright irritating. Never does John have a sympathetic moment, even when he dies. Although his death is not the most ridiculous in the film. That prize will be handed out later in this post.

But what drives me crazy about this film is the lack of passion that all of the actors seem to have. Constance does not get nearly as hysterical as someone would expect of someone who is desperate to get her son on the throne, and later, as a woman whose son has been abducted and will likely be dead soon. And speaking of the abduction, this film sticks so strictly to the play, that we get absolutely no visual extras. We don’t even get “excursions,” and instead just cuts from one scene to the next. A play oriented around a war with no war scenes is so sad. But returning to the lack of passion, the worst culprit for this is the young actor playing Arthur. While he’s adorable in a young kid whose voice verges on the prepubescent squeak at times, he’s entirely too earnest throughout with absolutely no range in his emotions. Every line is delivered at the same level and when he’s standing around being talked about, his face is rather expressionless and he just tends to blink a lot more than normal. What particularly drove me crazy is that during the scene when Hubert is about to poke out his eyes with hot pokers, the kid DOES NOT FREAK OUT. Now yes, he has Shakespearean lines to deliver, but when someone brings red hot metal near your face (no matter how fake it looks, and it does look fake) you do not remain calm. But Arthur’s best moment is when he proves he is too stupid to live. As you’ll recall, Arthur jumps off the castle wall in the stupidest escape attempt ever. What I did not mention is that among his lines is “be kind to me dear stones” before he jumps off. From the moment the child actor said that line, I started laughing. This only got worse when he had the most unintentionally comic death scene ever. There is fake blood, a line delivered in a weak voice, and then overdramatic death flopping. And then there was loud and inappropriate laughter from me and I desperately wish this scene were on YouTube so you could all appreciate the ridiculousness of it.

So to sum up, skip this film. Unless you are connoisseur in bad death scenes. And then just skip to Act IV and fast forward until you see the blond kid with the weirdly dark eyebrows on the plywood castle walls.

Next week we’re on to Richard II. Get ready for more royal hijinks, war, and death, readers.

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