The Hollow Crown spans Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V and, as much as possible, keeps the same cast when the characters span multiple movies. The only exception here is between the first two films since enough time has passed between Richard II and Henry IV Part 1 that the young Rory Kinnear (Skyfall) as the rising Henry IV has to be replaced by the older Jeremy Irons. Similarly, David Morrissey's (The Walking Dead) role as the Earl of Northumberland gets taken over by Alun Armstrong (BBC's New Tricks).
Richard II's events are what kicks off the War of the Roses, with King Richard (Ben Whishaw, the new Q in Skyfall) making the mistakes that ultimately lead to being dethroned by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke (Kinnear). The film starts off with Bolingbroke and another nobleman at King Richard's court. Bolingbroke claims that the other man has been planning treason. Before the argument gets out of hand, Richard stops them and commands them to stop fighting. When they defy their king, he banishes them both. Bolingbroke must leave England for only a set amount of time, but the other man, Thomas Mowbray, must never return.
This event kicks off the story's plot because Bolingbroke's father, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster (Patrick Stewart) dies not long after the banishment. Instead of recalling his cousin, Richard appoints one of his other uncles, the Duke of York (David Suchet, Agatha Christie's Poirot) over the lands and title, much to York's protest.
Bolingbroke sneaks back into England with the desire to go to the King and demand his house and land back, and with each step towards London, the future king ends up gathering more and more followers who feel that he was wronged. While Bolingbroke insists that he will request no more than what he feels is rightfully his, he ultimately casts his cousin down and replaces him.
These four plays have a lot of great dialogue and monologue, but two of my favorite Shakespearean monologues can be found in this play/ film. Stewart's portrayal as the aging and dying John of Gaunt is powerful and his final speech really helped to set the entire miniseries on the right track. Similarly, not only did Whishaw play a version of Richard II that I hadn't really seen before, but I was also impressed by his performance while predicting the bad times that Henry IV would have during his reign.
Henry IV Part 1 takes place more than a decade later (thus the switch to Jeremy Irons) and Henry hasn't had a good reign. He has felt a lot of guilt over dethroning Richard as well as the events that lead to Richard's ultimate fate. He has also been in a fairly constant fight with Scotland and Wales, but what seems to trouble him the most is his son, Henry, also known as "Hal" and "Harry," to both lessen the possible confusion between him and his father, and increase it by having characters call him three different names. Thankfully, watching Shakespeare helps to clear things up a lot more than simply reading it.
At the start of the film, Prince Hal (Tom Hiddleston, Thor, The Avengers) slums it up by hanging out in one of the worst taverns in London. Eastcheap is filled with bawdy girls, corrupt officials and low-life thieves, and they all love Harry. He soon reveals to the audience that he is behaving this way on purpose. He knows that he will someday be king and he will have to put away all the juvenile things he does, so he not only plans to have as much fun as possible while he can, but he plans to do a full 180 as soon as he is called upon. He feels that doing so will make any good deeds he does even better looking and more spectacular. It is during the events of Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 that he will not only have to step up and take responsibility, but ultimately replace his father as King.
Harry's Eastcheap friends includes the large knight, Sir Falstaff (Simon Beale), Falstaff's assistant, Bardolph (Tom Georgeson), the tavern owner Mistress Quickley (Julie Walters, the Harry Potter films), a common thief named Peto (Ian Conningham) and Hal's closest friend, Poins (David Dawson), and for about half of the film, Hal is in the company of these people. It isn't until he gets a call to arms that he starts to change and has to leave them behind.
You see, not only has King Henry had a bad time, but it seems some of the nobles, those that supported his rise to the throne, aren't happy with Henry either. The Percy family, Henry (now played by Armstrong), and his son Harry (AKA "Hotspur"), have started a conspiracy to bring Edmund Mortimer, Richard's chosen heir, to the throne. It is when news of the uprising gets to King Henry's ears that he calls Prince Hal in and explain to him just how disappointed he is.
What follows is battle preparation as Harry and his father raise their army to fight the Welsh uprising and eventually the battle at Shrewsbury where Harry and Harry (Hal and Hotspur) meet sword-to-sword until only the prince is left standing. Falstaff is also on the field of battle - he is a knight after all, but the man's weight and attitude means he mostly plays dead and waits for the fighting to be over. In a manner true to the crooked official, after Harry leaves the rebel's body, Falstaff stabs Hotspur's corpse, drags him to camp and claims that the prince didn't finish him off, but Hotspur was just faking it. Afterwards, the two dueled themselves and it was Falstaff who landed the final (and supposedly truly fatal) blow.
Where Harry had only been putting up with Falstaff's unscrupulous nature before, it is here that he starts to dislike the older man's nature. He does grant the old knight lands and honors, but things between him and Hal are never really the same.
Henry IV Part 2 is all about the aftermath of the Welsh rebellion and Hotspur's uprising. Harry is now becoming the more dutiful prince and King Henry's health is starting to fade. This particular story is more about court intrigue and maneuvering rather than battles. The Yorks start to hatch a plan to overthrow Henry, especially given the rumors of his health, but they are outmaneuvered by one of Hal's brothers. All the while, Hal continues his journey to becoming the next king. At first, it seems like he has returned to his old ways, but as King Henry's health lessens, Hal becomes more and more of the man he will become.
Meanwhile, Falstaff is still as crooked as ever, but when he finds out that the Chief Justice is looking to investigate the knight, he goes to the country and hides. It isn't until news of the King's death and Hal's approaching coronation that Falstaff returns to London in the hopes of getting even bigger rewards for being one of the boy's friends, but he doesn't get what he expected. Instead, the new King Henry V not only banishes the man from his presence, but also makes sure that everyone knows he is no longer the person he was before ascending the throne and then sics the Chief Justice on Falstaff. In what seems like a cruel maneuver, Henry V lets everyone know that he will no longer abide the criminals regardless of his past history with them.
Truth be told, I always felt like Henry IV Part 2 was the weakest of these four plays, but it is necessary to see Prince Hal become King Henry V and to see the last bits of his old self fall away. For the most part, a lot of the overarching storylines end with this event. Henry IV's reign was filled with turmoil because of how he obtained the throne, just like Richard II said it would. With Hal gaining it through the standard ways, much of that instability goes away. Henry V has a lot of the same characters, including those at Eastcheap, but they have a different purpose.
Some time into his reign, King Henry V decides to take the throne of France because he feels that his claim on the throne is stronger than that of the current French monarchy. Much of the play/ film is about Henry's preparation for the war and the war itself. The characters from Eastcheap, specifically Poins, Peto, Bardolph and Falstaff's Page, join the army. What results is an interesting two-sided view of the battle. Time is split between Henry's strategic maneuvering and the Eastcheaper's time in the trenches. Of course, Henry doesn't lead from behind, he is at the front of the battles, but he is in a very different position than his former friends.
This story also goes to the French Court as we see how their King and advisors take the various tactics of Henry's forces. I've always found this to be an interesting aspect of the play as King Henry V was written for an English audience. While the French aren't portrayed badly by any means, they aren't even close to the strong characters seen elsewhere. In fact, it is on this side of the play that a lot of its comic relief comes in. Specifically when Princess Katharine (Melanie Thierry) attempts to learn English from her lady-in-waiting.
Henry V seems to have two endings. One is when the French are defeated at Agincourt after the King gives his St. Crispin's Day Speech, a speech Hiddleston performs remarkably, and then that victory's aftermath when Henry is trying to convince Katharine to marry him, not just for the political gain it would grant them, but also for love. In this case, the drama of the fighting is nicely tempered by the somewhat comedic scene as Henry doesn't speak a lot of French, and Kate doesn't speak a lot of English.
The Hollow Crown comes with three featurettes, each one clocking in at 12 - 15 minutes. Three are making-of featurettes for Richard II, the two Henry IV's together and Henry V. Each one talks with that film's particular director and the show creators as they discuss their individual visions for the films. The last one is about the miniseries as a whole and how each of the individual directors watched as the others worked on their projects. It also talks about the decision to keep the casting the same between Henry IV and Henry V, something that isn't really done since all four plays aren't really ever done all at once like this.
While each film can stand on its own, the decision to keep the characters cast the same (where possible) makes the entire miniseries really come together. Like I said at the beginning, this approach means that you are watching one long story. If it was different casting between the three different stories, then it would feel more like watching different productions that just happened to occur in succession. It would be like trying to tie Starz's The White Queen in with Showtime's The Tudors and then follow that up with Cate Blanchett's film Elizabeth. While that might make an interesting viewing event, you can't really hope to get the feeling of one overarching story like you do in this case.
Any Shakespeare fan, especially those who enjoy the Histories, should want to see this miniseries. It is filled with great actors portraying great characters and in a way that I feel hasn't really been done in film before. Heck, I think even High School English teachers should consider adding this set of TV movies to their possible viewing libraries. Something expressed in the special features, and something I agree with, is that watching Shakespeare performed not only helps the viewer/reader understand what is going on, but it helps to pull everything together.