Shakespeare Plays : King Richard II (1978)

Genres - Drama, Historical Film  |   Sub-Genres - Biopic [feature]  |   Run Time - 180 min.  |   Countries - United Kingdom   |  
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When the BBC presented this 1979 production, it proved that a lesser-known Shakespeare work could entertain and enthrall with the same mesmeric power of plays such as Macbeth and Hamlet. Of course, it didn't hurt that one of England's finest actors, Derek Jacobi, was portraying Richard II. From the beginning, Jacobi is suitably contemptuous. For example, when leaving with his retinue to see old John of Gaunt, a dying adversary, Jacobi infuses his speech and manner with impish flippancy, saying, "Pray God we may make haste, and come too late!" He is also mercurial, exhibiting euphoria, rage, and despair in the same brief scene. Such sudden changes in demeanor require consummate acting skill, and Jacobi has it. As John of Gaunt, Sir John Gielgud appears in the play only for a short time before his character dies, but his recital of an oft-quoted passage ("This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle...") is one of the highlights of the production. His performance is at once eloquent, passionate, and riveting. Other actors in the play -- including Jon Finch as Henry Bolingbroke, Richard Owens as Thomas Mowbray, Charles Gray as Duke of York, and Wendy Hiller as Duchess of York -- also give strong performances. The verbal joust between Finch and Owens in the first act is as fine a tilt as any on the field of battle, full of huff and bluster and here and there a cut to the quick. Richard II -- in the hands of Jacobi, Gielgud, and company -- is indeed "an aurora borealis," to paraphrase scholar Harold Bloom.