Film Review – Richard II (1978)

Apparently the universe is listening to my pleas for there to be better adaptations of the history plays because as I was poking around IMDb for the date on the version of Richard II that I watched, I discovered that there will be a version coming out some time this year with Sir Patrick Stewart as John of Gaunt (bonjour, mon capitaine!). Sadly, however, it is not out yet, so I once again I have watched A Complete Dramatic Works of Shakespeare film, just so you don’t have to. I spoil you, reader.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that this adaptation is FAR better than the one I watched last week for King John. The most important difference is that the the actors in this film are not afraid to act. These men (and a very small number of women) are not afraid to break out the emotional range, which was nice. However, while the actors were capable, the cinematography is still pretty dull and so Twitter got some of my attention while watching this film.

That being said, the first act of the film managed to keep my attention for its duration. The actor playing Richard definitely makes the character pretty effeminate, an impression only enforced by his costumes, which contrasts strongly with the actor playing Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV to be) who is undoubtedly masculine. This contrast adds an interesting element to the conflict between these two men and makes it far more difficult to be sympathetic for Richard. The actor portrays him as mercurial and a bit ridiculous, although he does have a very sweet parting scene with his Queen towards the end of the film where we get a flash of of sympathy.

Shakespeare's Richard II 1978

Richard in his not-so-manly clothes.

Interestingly, two of our major female characters, the Duchess of Gloster and the Queen, are played by actresses that were in King John (Eleanor of Aquitane and Blanch, if you’re curious). While the Queen is a sympathetic character and probably the most interesting woman in the play, the Duchess of Gloster just gets stuck with a ridiculously ugly hat.

Duchess of Gloster 1978

"My husband dies and I get stuck with this ugly hat."

While the sets are still very stage-y, the film, for all of its lack of visual pizzazz, is shot to make the sets look as real as possible, so plywood castle walls always look slightly more real. It also helps that many of the “outdoor” scenes which are obviously on a stage are done at night so that they don’t come across as quite so ridiculous.

Scenes of note include Henry and Mowbray tossing their gloves on the ground to challenge each other to duels because the actors actually manage to make the action pretty impressive instead of giggle-worthy. Similarly, the scene on the jousting ground is actually pretty decent. The production actually sprung for two REAL horses (no coconuts for these guys), however, neither of the herald’s are as impressive or as attractive as Paul Bettany. Also of note during this scene are the so-ridiculous-they’re-epic helmets that Richard and Mowbray carry but never actually put on. Sadly, while Richard’s many speeches when he’s about to be deposed by Henry are shot so statically, they come across as interminable. However, he does have a bright moment during the fight scene right before his death. Unfortunately the fighting is so obviously fake (it helps if you HIT the other guy before he falls over) that the scene ultimately fizzles. The real winner of the film is the actor who plays Henry who manages to rock long hair and a beard (also a super ridiculous hat in one of his later scenes as king) and also comes across as sympathetic. So at least there’s something to look forward to when I watch Henry IV Part 1.

Henry and Richard, Richard II 1978

Henry is just so much more awesome than Richard. No wonder he gets to be king.

Speaking of Henry IV Part 1, I’ll actually be taking next week off from reading Shakespeare next week. But don’t despair, as I will finally be posting a film review for The Winter’s Tale next Wednesday. Until then, fair reader.

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