These three screen adaptations, Henry VI in two parts and Richard III, tell the story of 'The Wars of the Roses', an exceptionally turbulent period in British history. Shakespeare's plays are filmed in the visually breathtaking landscape and architecture of the period. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Hugh Bonneville, Judi Dench, Michael Gambon, Sally Hawkins, Sophie Okonedo & Tom Sturridge, these exhilarating and emotionally charged films feature some of Shakespeare's most eloquent and powerful language.
Can Shakespeare be adapted today and still be relevant? Even if you don't place it in a modern day setting, it's a difficult task, as there are still dozens of stories that borrow so much from his classic plays. Then there is the dialect that modern audiences tend to shy away from. Shakespeare seems to be one of the hardest playwrights or authors to adapt. But could it work in a longer mini-series setting, with actors that are already in regular BBC syndication? BBC is now trying that theory out.
This is BBC’s second miniseries based on Shakespeare’s lesser known plays. The first telling is the story of Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, and then Henry V. This new miniseries aims at continuing those storylines with the next generations, beginning with Henry VI Parts 1&2, and Richard III.
We start out with the crowning of a new King after Henry V’s passing. His son Henry VI (Tom Sturridge) is now king and he couldn't have come into the throne at a worse time. England is at war with France and there is dissension in the council about whether Henry can live up to being the ruler they need in such desperate times. They are right to question him due to the fact that Henry is young, naïve, and easily influenced. Even his loyal Uncle, The Duke of Gloucester (Hugh Bonneville), has doubts about him.
As the war against France has taken so many soldiers’ lives, a peace agreement is made (that the French have no intention of keeping). The Duke of Somerset (Ben Miles) has arranged for the two houses to marry and become one. Henry is to marry French Princess Margaret (Sophie Okonedo). Margaret must live in England, and though she claims to love her King, we very quickly find out she has ulterior motives. She has already chosen a side of what is to become ‘The War of the Roses,’ a war that will last more than twenty years.
On one side, wearing the red rose, we have The Duke of Somerset, who is secretly having an affair with the new Queen Margaret, and has devised a plan to take control of the throne using King Henry’s naïve nature. On the opposite side stands Richard Plantagenet (wearing the white rose) who believes his birthright makes him to true heir to the throne. The two sides eventually tear England apart in a tale full of bloodshed, envy, and revenge.
This story is served very well as a miniseries. You get a true sense of how far the throne has come by the end of this story. It is important to note that some key elements to this play have been changed and streamlined (Specifically in Henry VI Part 2) to expedite the narrative in this particular adaptation. But all changes seem warranted and the intention is the same as in the play. A lot is packed into this series, and with a six-hour runtime, you get a clear look at how the mindset of the English people towards the monarchy has changed as a result of this seemingly pointless but impactful war.
Performances here are exceptionally strong. Every actor in this series has a seemingly impossible task of conveying emotion, so that even if you cannot understand the dialect they are speaking in, you can understand their actions based solely on body language and facial expression. Many Shakespeare adaptations fail in this area, but due to performances like that of Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III, this one does not. He comes in about halfway through the series, but immediately injects a sense of true menace and villainy to the series. It is clear how Cumberbatch became the star he is today, when he gives every role such presence and gravitas.
My only complaint is that at times there are small scenes that don’t translate well from the play to the screen. Things such as people carrying on conversations right next to the person that they are conspiring against, and yet the person doesn’t hear them. Or someone hiding behind a tree during a huge battle and yet no one sees him. Then there is the breaking of the fourth wall and talking to the camera which is done by Richard III that is truly distracting. Granted, you also see this in every episode of House of Cards, but I don’t like it there and I don’t like it here either.
This is a very dense story with many character that speak in a dialect that is hard to understand at times. But this series does everything to bring you into the story. With series such as Game of Thrones being as popular as they are today, I think this miniseries can truly break the Shakespeare barrier that most adaptations get stuck in, appealing to a larger audience as it did to me.
‘Wars of the Roses’ comes to Blu-ray with a quite impressive and regal two-disc set. Presented with a 1080P MPEG -4 AVC encode framed with a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, this transfer is no Game of Thrones, but it is effective at what it is nonetheless.
Detail is the real star here, with an extremely sharp transfer containing amazing detail throughout, that you don’t always find in a transfer of a television production. From the detail of the armor, to the beautiful landscapes during transitional scenes, this is a razor sharp transfer that is far better than one would expect.
Skin tones and the overall color palette is fairly good, leading to only the mildest of complaints. Much like many color palettes of transfers from this time period, daytime shots are mostly washed out with a steely look to them. That sometimes (including this case) means that the overall whiteness of the palette can sometimes take away from the detail that I have come to praise about this transfer. But those are only certain isolated shots in what otherwise is a transfer that exceeds expectations and looks more like a top quality film transfer than a BBC production.
‘Wars of the Roses’ curtseys its way onto Blu-ray with a DTS-HD 5.1 track that is more in line with what you would expect from a television production. Surrounds are the biggest victim of this, falling under the usual television transfer trope of only being used to assist the score and being rather soft during battle scenes. This is nothing particularly troubling, but with other shows that are out today boasting an extremely active surround track, it is worth mentioning.
The rest of this track fares a lot better, boasting an impressive front speaker and LFE track. I love the score to this series and how well it fits with its tragic Shakespearian tone. The front speakers, along with some deep bass levels, give the score a sense of presence and weight. Voice and audio levels are also impressive here by not making the listener strain to hear dialogue that can be difficult to understand on its own. Overall I did like what was done with this track; unfortunately, the bar is set very high for television audio transfers today and this one is stuck a little behind the best.
The Making of the Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses – A great Featurette that really goes into how they went about adapting these seemingly difficult plays. It talks in great length about how important this cast was in getting the story told accurately and successfully.
Deleted Scenes – A number of deleted scenes that add very little to the overall narrative of the story.
‘Wars of the Roses’ is a miniseries that eclipsed and transformed my initial prejudice towards Shakespeare adaptations, and my enjoyment of it truly caught me off guard. Before seeing this, I thought Shakespeare belonged on the small stage and not on the screen. But now I am proud to say that this series reminded me to never say never, and that anything can be done with the right people in the right setting. With a strong video and audio transfer, I recommend this to anyone with an open mind, and hopefully they will be as deeply immersed in the ‘Wars of the Roses’ as I was.