Sunday, January 25, 2015

TV Across the Pond

Once you get over the idea that everyone in Paris in the 1600s speaks with an English accent -- except the Spanish -- The Musketeers from BBC can be a lot of sword-swinging, macho-swaggering fun. Sort of like a 17th century A-Team, which only fits because the A-Team were themselves kind of modeled on Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers.

And for that matter, The Musketeers is only kind of modeled on Dumas' novel as well. There are the same names and the same general idea, but those who read the novel find four fellows who are not always as stalwartly heroic as their reputation has become down through the years. We still have the original three -- Athos, Aramis and Porthos -- who are joined by the newcomer D'Artagnan. There is a Constance Bonacieux, a Milady deWinter and a (boo! hiss!) Cardinal Richelieu. But each of our heroes is given a Weighty Past that Haunts Him to This Day, or at least, Haunts Him to This Day When the Current Episode Calls for It.

Historical accuracy is not a watchword either; the actual King's Musketeers had to do their swaggering in pouffy coats and much looser pants than our heroes, with quite a bit less leather. It is certain they did not look nearly as cool.

All that said, the show is really quite a bit of fun. All four leads handle their acting chores well, as do most of the ancillary characters. Peter Capaldi makes an excellent power-hungry Richelieu, and the second season of the series has so far suffered when he was cast as Doctor Who and replaced in villainy by Marc Warren as Comte de Rochefort. Capaldi was menacing and devious, but played his role with an undercurrent of whimsy that showed he did not take this version of the Musketeers' story too seriously. Howard Charles as Porthos has some of the same attitude, although some of the rest of the cast seem to adapt it into their performances as the season went along. Perhaps Warren can do so as well.
Of course, the original "play fast and loose with history for dramatic purposes" guy was William Shakespeare. He drew upon Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, first published in 1577, for many of his historical plays, even though scholars at the time and since then question the Chronicles accuracy.

Shakespeare seems to have used the Chronicles most heavily for Macbeth and for his "Henriad," or four plays that detail the dynastic struggles that would eventually lead to the Wars of the Roses, the downfall of the Plantagenet kings and the rise of the Tudors who ruled during Shakespeare's time. In 2012, BBC produced all four as a sort of miniseries called The Hollow Crown. Each had a separate director and several different folks on their respective production teams.

The plays are Richard II, Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II and Henry V. They form a rough arc following Richard II's dethroning at the hands of Henry of Bolingbrooke, who became Henry IV, and of his son Henry V. Shakespeare, following Holinshed, holds Richard II accountable for the civil unrest and corruption that spurred Bolingbrooke to take the crown, and which later on allowed for the rival Yorkists and Lancastrians to battle for it in the Wars of the Roses.

In this cycle, Richard II and Henry IV Part II are the weakest, probably, in the eyes of a modern audience. The project takes full advantage of not being a staged play to use locations and hordes of extras to be the armies involved, but both of those plays focus so much on one character that they don't use that freedom to fullest advantage.

Part of the problem is the characters, of course. In Richard II, monologues from the title character make up a huge share of the play, as the feckless, corrupt and uncaring king learns humility and empathy when faced with the loss of his crown (Whether or not the real Richard II matched this description is in debate). He is redeemed as a person only by his great loss as a king. Ben Whishaw handles the long speeches marvelously, but there is only so much mileage a story can get out of its lead character talking about being reformed without showing him so.

In Henry IV Part I and Part II, Henry of Bolingbrooke as the new King Henry IV is played by Jeremy Irons. Even though he is the title character, the main driver of the action is his son Henry V, played by Tom Hiddleston. The first play covers Henry IV's concerns about his irresponsible son, who would rather hang about taverns than learn the business of ruling. At first he is jealous of Henry Percy, nickamed "Harry Hotspur," a young relative about his son's age (in real life they were a couple of decades apart) who is all the leader he wishes "Prince Hal" would be. But Hotspur's pride soon puts them at odds, and he leads a rebellion that culminates in the Battle of Shrewsbury. Prince Hal learns to put off some of his wastrel nature and may yet become a king. In the second, we spend a lot of time on Sir John Falstaff, a layabout degenerate knight who is one of Prince Hal's drinking buddies.

Falstaff as a character is iconic, the archetype of the lovable rogue whose twin aims are self-preservation and self-gratification. In doses, and playing off Prince Hal in the first story, he's tolerable. But given a solo focus as he is in Part II, he's just wearisome. Simon Russell Beale won a BAFTA award for his work as Falstaff, but Falstaff the man isn't as clever as he thinks he is. Nor is Falstaff the character as much fun as Shakespeare must have thought he was, making Henry IV Part II more of a chore to sit through.

By Henry V, we see Prince Hal as a king in his own right, and desiring to re-assert rights he claims to have over the throne of France. The French crown prince or "dauphin" responds insultingly to Henry's claims, and so the fight is on. The play traces Henry's army as it meets with initial success, before distance, attenuated supply lines and France's overwhelming numerical superiority make victory look anything but certain when the two sides meet at Agincourt. Hiddleston carries the main share of this play, showing Henry at court as well as on the battlefield and visiting his soldiers at night in disguise to encourage them and gauge their mood. He does well enough, but was more convincing as the recreational Prince Hal than he is as the grim warrior leader -- even though he was none too shabby as the evil Loki in the Marvel movies.

The Hollow Crown is an excellent combination of Shakespeare stagecraft and modern filming techniques. Even with the expanded abilities to show large-scale battles and scenery that Shakespeare could only hint at, the production does not overshadow the core of his work -- well-developed characters and the wonderful things they say. A lot of folks would differ with some of my evaluations and consider Richard II well worth all the time we spend listening to him and Falstaff a man of depth rather than just a lout. The cool thing is that, thanks to the BBC, we have these excellent productions about which we may argue those points.

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