One of the big events of the fall TV season arrives tonight with the PBS premiere of The Hollow Crown, a Great Performances four-week miniseries featuring lavish adaptations of a quartet of Shakespeare’s most gripping history plays.
Cast with some of Great Britain’s finest classically trained actors, Crown chronicles the turbulent rise and fall of three English Kings – Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V – and how their reigns helped shape British history.
Tonight’s premiere features Richard II, a lesser-known play here in the States, but absolutely gripping in this film directed by Rupert Goold. Ben Whishaw, who played gadget guru Q in the James Bond blockbuster Skyfall, stars as the vain, capricious and self-centered monarch whose penchant for acting on spiteful whims is revealed almost immediately, as Richard is petitioned by a cousin, Henry Bolingbroke (Rory Kinnear), to settle a dispute with Thomas Mowbray (James Purefoy from Fox’s The Following).
Ultimately, Richard renders a judgment that pleases no one, banishing both men from the kingdom, although he rewards Henry’s past loyalty by sending him away for “only” six years. That’s more than enough, however, to break the heart of Henry’s elderly father, John of Gaunt (Patrick Stewart), who dies soon after his son departs. Wasting no time, Richard seizes the family’s property and possessions that are Henry’s birthright, then heads to Ireland to put down a rebel uprising.
In the king’s absence, a furious Henry defies his banishment, returning to reclaim his inheritance. With the heartfelt support of allies Northumberland (David Morrissey, The Walking Dead) and the Duke of York (David Suchet, Poirot), Henry readily takes Richard prisoner and lays claim to the throne as King Henry IV.
Whishaw, who won a BAFTA Award (the British Emmy) as best actor for his role, gives a fascinating performance as this rather effete and aloof monarch, a portrayal that is mildly off-putting in his early scenes, but builds in intensity and tragic stature as Richard’s destiny takes a series of appalling turns. At two and a half hours, Richard II is the longest of these films, yet it feels the shortest, because Goold keeps things moving at such a nice clip.
On Sept. 27, Henry IV, Part I finds a much older Henry, now played by Jeremy Irons, beset by myriad troubles as his reign moves into its twilight years. What really has him most worried, however, is that Prince Hal (Tom Hiddleston, The Avengers) is sowing his wild oats with a drunken old knight named Falstaff (Simon Russell Beale, who won the BAFTA as best supporting actor) at a tavern run by Mistress Quickly (Julie Walters) instead of dutifully preparing to assume the throne. In fact, Hal’s misbehavior is causing such a scandal that a challenger to the throne, Hotspur (Joe Armstrong), is having no trouble building a coalition of supporters.
With rebels threatening the succession, Hal ultimately returns to his father’s side, but not before one of the most unforgettable comic moments in the miniseries, as Hal makes fun of his father, giving Hiddleston an excuse to show off his absolutely pitch-perfect vocal impression of the great rumbling drawl Jeremy Irons seems to favor in most of his roles these days.
In Henry IV, Part II (Oct. 4), the king’s ministers step up their efforts to drive a wedge between Hal and Falstaff, and they get their wish after Hal overhears Falstaff belittling him and catches the boozy knight in a series of lies. After Henry IV dies, Falstaff is convinced his ship finally has come in, but he is in for a rude awakening as Hal ascends the throne as King Henry V. In both films, director Richard Eyre brings to vivid life the uproarious medieval messiness of Falstaff’s world, although every now and then a scene gets so busy that we lose track of the story.
The miniseries concludes on Oct. 11 with director Thea Sharrock’s moving treatment of Henry V, which previously was adapted into critically acclaimed feature films starring Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh. Hiddleston continues in his regal role, looking every inch a king as Henry faces a series of challenges from the French monarch (Lambert Wilson). The first hour or so feels elegiac, including as it does the deaths of both Falstaff and his ne’er-do-well companion Bardolph (Tom Georgeson), but as events lead us inevitably to the high-stakes battle of Agincourt in France, the mood becomes more stirring. In the climactic moments, when Henry and his small, exhausted and bedraggled army must confront a well-rested French force five times its size, Hiddleston delivers his rallying speech to his troops thrillingly, while Sharrock frames the battle action in such a way as to make us believe there are far more soldiers on the battlefield than was actually the case.
Production values are absolutely top-notch, and the supporting cast also includes Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary from Downton Abbey), Maxine Peake and Tom Hughes of Silk, Clemence Poesy (Fleur from the Harry Potter films), Alun Armstrong (New Tricks), Lindsay Duncan (Rome) and Geoffrey Palmer (As Time Goes By), among many others. Needless to say, I highly recommend The Hollow Crown. Be careful, though, to check your local listings, because some PBS affiliates carry their own local programming on Friday nights and will schedule Crown in a different time period.
Julie Walters and Simon Russell Beale
Lennie James and Mark Strong (from left)
Low Winter Sun, a new 10-part crime drama premiering Sunday on AMC after the return of its Emmy-winning Breaking Bad, starts out on an intense note, as Detroit homicide detective Frank Agnew (British actor Mark Strong, Zero Dark Thirty) teams up with police colleague Joe Geddes (Lennie James, The Walking Dead) to murder a corrupt cop who – Frank has been told by Joe – killed one of Frank’s loved ones in a drug-fueled rage. The crime is grossly out of character for Frank, an upright cop driven to violence by his grief. After all, the victim was a nasty piece of work, so the two men don’t feel that bad about making his death look like a suicide.
Except, almost immediately, things start to go spectacularly wrong. The morning after the murder, Frank learns that the victim was under the scrutiny of Simon Boyd (David Costabile, Suits), an Internal Affairs investigator. Worse, when investigators retrieve the victim’s car from the watery site of his “suicide,” they find a second, dismembered corpse in the trunk.
What the heck is going on here, Frank starts to wonder. Has Joe played him? Did the dead guy really kill Frank’s loved one, or did Joe, or is she still alive? And is the crime going to suck Frank into an ugly morass via the Internal Affairs investigation?
So many questions, so little reason to care.
Seriously, I can’t remember the last time I saw a drama with a strong cast and a solid pedigree (former Criminal Minds and Cold Case scribe Chris Mundy adapted this new series from a well-received 2006 British miniseries) that left me so thoroughly disengaged. While I like the audacity of starting the series with this shocking act of violence, the murder loses a lot of its impact because we never see Frank – who, we are reassured by most of his colleagues, is a stand-up kind of guy – not behaving badly. Low Winter Sun wants to make us feel emotionally invested in the moral disintegration of a decent human being, but we never make a connection with Frank in the first place, nor do we care about the relationship the murder victim apparently destroyed. It doesn’t help that James, in an otherwise good performance, is so transparently a bad guy from the first moment we see him that Frank seems pretty simpleminded to be taken in by him. (If you’re about to scream, “Hey, spoiler alert!” trust me. You can see that one coming a mile off).
There’s a secondary story line involving a blue-collar aspiring drug kingpin named Damon Callis (James Ransone) and his Lady Macbeth, wife Maya (Sprague Graydon), but their scenes in the first two episodes AMC made available look like outtakes from every other episode of Law & Order you’ve ever seen.
I suppose it’s possible that Mundy will find a way to make us care about Frank, or any of the other characters for that matter, in the episodes to come, but after spending two hours with this chilly, cliché-filled story, I can’t in good conscience suggest you clear another hour in what is probably an already full Sunday night of TV viewing for such a half-baked effort.
Several weeks ago NBC sent out the first few episodes of its highly anticipated new thriller Hannibal to TV writers, and I’ve been trying to sort out my feelings about it ever since.
As you’ve probably already heard, the new series is a prequel of sorts to Thomas Harris’ bestselling books featuring the cannibalistic serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a role most closely associated with Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar-winning turn in The Silence of the Lambs. Its title notwithstanding, however, Lecter isn’t actually the main character in the new NBC series, which premieres tonight. Instead, the show revolves mainly around criminal profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), who excels at his job because he has an uncanny knack for seeing into the minds of serial killers.
It’s draining work and, as the series opens, Will is at the end of his rope emotionally. Suffering from exhaustion and recurring nightmares, he threatens to quit, so his boss, Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), enlists the help of someone to keep an eye on Will’s mental state: renowned psychiatrist Dr. Lecter (Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, Casino Royale). That sets up the show’s tantalizing premise. As Will pursues serial killers week after week, unbeknownst to him and his colleagues, he’s teamed with one of the most twisted psychos of them all.
Hannibal springs from the fertile mind of Bryan Fuller, the brilliant writer-producer whose self-acknowledged fascination with death and mortality has turned up in some form in nearly all of his previous projects: Dead Like Me, the dark 2003-04 Showtime fantasy about a band of reapers, the spirits who harvest the souls of the dead; Pushing Daisies, the endearingly whimsical 2007-09 ABC romantic comedy about a soulful piemaker and the girlfriend he brings back from the grave; and Mockingbird Lane, Fuller’s attempted reinvention of The Munsters that NBC abandoned after airing the show’s sumptuous pilot last fall as a Halloween special. What all those projects had in common was a supreme confidence in mixing tones, an ability to interject comedy, albeit sometimes black, into the most macabre contexts.
Hannibal, on the other hand, is Fuller’s first foray into straight-on horror and, as such, I find it far less interesting than his previous projects. There is a grave (no pun intended) beauty to some of the scenes, which have a sense of almost churchlike ritual, yet the thing doesn’t hold together very well. Will, for example, keeps being haunted by images of a giant stag in his dreams and occasional hallucinations, but after the umpteenth enigmatic appearance of that damn deer, I started to suspect that this “mystical” image was there just to give me the unearned impression that all of this had A Deeper Meaning.
There are also occasional credibility gaps. A serial killer who carves up his victims and contorts their bodies into obscene parodies of angels is found an apparent suicide via the same process, yet none of the investigators seems to have a problem believing the grotesque injuries could possibly have been self-inflicted. In another scene, Lecter inexplicably manages to escape from a house that is tightly surrounded by police, with no subsequent explanation of how that happened.
Dancy makes Will’s psychic pain palpable, but his exhaustion often translates onscreen as torpor, which doesn’t help a show that already has some significant problems with dramatic pacing. As for Mikkelsen, I’ve seen a few other reviews that praise the sly wit and charm of his performance, qualities that I simply don’t see. Mikkelsen’s Lecter has nothing to do with the creepily avuncular vibe Hopkins brought to Silence of the Lambs and, to me, the character here comes across transparently as a guy who’s harboring some pretty dark secrets.
As for the violence, well, it’s very violent. Blood abounds at the crime scenes, as when a father slashes the throat of his own teenage daughter on-camera. And it takes a strong stomach not to get a little queasy as we watch Lecter in his kitchen lovingly preparing his gourmet dishes out of organs that are recognizably human (would you prefer your lungs medium rare or well done?).
I’m by no means a horror fan, but I have no trouble handling it if it’s wrapped up in a complex, character-driven context such as Showtime’s long-running serial-killer drama Dexter or AMC’s it’s-not-really-about-the-zombies thriller The Walking Dead or A&E’s splendidly acted new Bates Motel. Hannibal, in contrast, so far strikes me as relentlessly bleak and joyless and, frankly, it leaves me feeling depressed. If that’s what Dr. Lecter is serving, I’ll have to take a rain check on this dinner.