Film review: Strike (Stachka; 1925)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 4, 2015 by Mistlake

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Director: Sergei M. Eisenstein. Writers: Grigori Aleksandrov, Sergei M. Eisenstein, Ilya Kravchunovsky, Valerian Pletnev. Starring: Maxim Shtraukh, Grigori Aleksandrov, Mikhail Gomorov, Boris Yurtsev, I. Ivanov, Ivan Klyukvin, Aleksandr Antonov, Yudif Glizer.

 

Tsarist Russia. When a factory worker is wrongly accused of theft, his suicide ignites the flame causing the other workers to finally rise up against their bad working conditions and capitalist overlords.

If this had been a review only of Strike’s visual qualities, I would have given it a 10 out of 10, no question about it. The images are incredibly intelligent, energetic and powerful, using montage and depth of frame composition in tandem with amazing tracking shots and gorgeous lighting to make the enormous, ugly factory look like an imposing marvel. Locations and sets are equally stupendous-looking and packed with character and detail. There’s always something to look at that feels fresh and innovative, which is quite the accomplishment for a movie that’s 90 years old as of this writing. Striking images include – apart from the lovingly shot gigantic manufacturing machines – piles of massive steel train wheels; weird concrete shafts in the earth out of which dozens of acrobatic beggars come streaming like a mass of rats; and vast shots of crowds of people billowing forth in pastoral scenes as well as on tenement stairs and gangways and – in more intimidating fashion – in scenes where the police, military and even fire brigade attack the strikers.

Alas, this review is not just concerned with the way Strike looks. Soviet film theory has given us much, including the modern way to use montage and symbolic crosscutting, but its proponents were of course also deeply entrenched in socialist doctrine. The fact that Strike is nothing more or less than dramatised propaganda is one thing – it doesn’t make the film any less interesting as a picture of a very special time and place, and the story is so well fitted to the message that the latter feels like a natural component rather than an intrusive addition.

No, the problem is the socialist obsession with glorifying “the masses”, which led to the notion of the “collective hero”. This means that a whole drove of people collectively become the protagonist, in this case the factory workers. This makes Strike lacking in human dimension, for only rarely do we see the workers as individuals. Sure, they have leaders, but they just blend in with the rest, and I would be hard pressed to recognise who is who among the dozen or so characters we see the most. There are a couple of scenes of family life, but they are too generalized and fleeting to bring much life to the characters involved.

The memorable people are instead the villains, who are all caricatures. Most of them are parodically clichéd capitalists: fat, wearing top hats, smoking cigars. The spies these overlords employ are portrayed in equally simplistic fashion, each of them represented by an animal (“The Owl”, “The Bulldog”, “The Monkey”). The one crisply original character is “The King”, a dignified but insane hobo who commands an army of beggars. Strike saves its individualism for the bad guys, then, which is hardly surprising, since in Soviet Russia, individuality was a bad, possibly criminal trait.

As for the script, it is just as predictable as the images are surprising, so that these two elements work in direct opposition to one another. If you or I were to put minimum effort into writing a story about a factory strike in 1910s Russia, it would in all likelihood go through exactly the same motions as Strike does: the final drop causing the strike, the strikers’ initial sense of power and freedom, then the increasing worries about food and money, then the owners’ refusal of demands, followed by the retaliation of the authorities against the strikers. There are no surprises.

Strike is a great film to look at, but soon becomes tedious to actually watch. See it for the pure genius of the cinematography and editing.

Rating: 6 of 10.

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Film review: Orphans of the Storm (1921)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 3, 2015 by Mistlake

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Director: D.W. Griffith. Writer: D.W. Griffith, based on the novel Les deux orphelines by Adolphe d’Ennery and Eugène Cormon. Starring: Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, Joseph Schildkraut, Frank Losee, Morgan Wallace, Lucille La Verne, Sheldon Lewis, Creighton Hale, Monte Blue, Sidney Herbert.

18th Century France: a foundling girl, Louise (Dorothy Gish), is brought up as the daughter of a family of small means. When Louise goes blind, her adoptive sister Henriette (Lillian Gish) travels with her to Paris to find a cure, but the two girls become separated by misfortune just as the French Revolution is about to break loose.

This one is inescapably reminiscent of A Tale of Two Cities and Les Misérables, but is made somewhat more exciting by the fact that it’s a lesser known story and that a happy ending wasn’t mandatory in early 1920s Hollywood. The tale of two sisters is straight out of any number of cheap romance novels, and the various movers and shakers of the French Revolution are portrayed as either snowy white or charcoal black, so there’s little subtlety to this film, but perhaps that is as it should be when one is trying to emulate Dickens (which Griffith did rather a lot).

The first half is creaky, focusing on not one, but two of Griffith’s favoured innocent waifs in perilous circumstances. Once the revolution looms closer and historical luminaries like Danton (Blue; white knight) and Robespierre (Herbert; blackest villain) approach centre stage, there’s spectacle and some attempt at real thought involved, and everything gets a lot meatier, including Henriette’s and Louise’s narrative.

As expected, the Gish sisters do a great job, but there’s a remarkable dissimilarity to the size and substance of their roles. Dorothy Gish mostly just gets to wander about suffering as a blind beggar under the control of nasty crone La Frochard (a grotesquely made up and highly entertaining La Verne). Lillian has a much bigger part, and a more varied one too. Sure, Henriette does her fair bit of crying and suffering as well –it’s Lillian Gish we’re talking about, after all – but she gets to save Danton’s life, be chased by horny nobleman de Praille (Wallace), be dragged into the street violence before and during the revolution, go medieval on La Frochard and – of course – fall in love with dashing nobleman de Vaudrey (Schildkraut). Even though the things she is called upon to do are mostly as unnuanced as the rest of the movie, at least she gets to show range and be unusually proactive, not the passive victim she so often had to play. For all of Henriette’s adorable cuteness, she is actually quite feisty, and that is good to see.

Mention should also go to Schildkraut, who breathes volumes of life into what could have been a one-dimensional hero cliché. From the very start, de Vaudrey is on the side of the people, buying bread for the starving and whatnot, but he’s hardly a proletarian – he is in fact the most extreme fop in the extremely foppy French nobility, dressing and having himself made up in the very ponciest fashion, clearly enjoying his life of luxury while realising (and warning others) that it’s coming to an end. Schildkraut plays the part with much gusto and admirable versatility, coming out of the movie as the most interesting character in it.

But despite the fine cast, there are two other things that stand out more in Orphans of the Storm: the spectacle and the politics.

Great orgy-like feasts, huge crowds battling it out in the streets, opulent sets (although it bugs me that one magnificent, recurring street set was evidently constructed in such a way that it could only be shot from one angle) and brilliantly realised scenes of revolutionary chaos all bring a truly epic scope to the latter half of the picture. That’s when the fun really kicks in and the movie acquires a level of excitement and thrills that nails one’s attention to the screen. The long but superbly judged climax, when both Henriette’s and Vaudrey’s lives are in extreme danger, is positively nailbiting, especially as – again – there is no guarantee of a rosy outcome in a silent film (Lillian Gish may have died onscreen as many times as Sean Bean).

On the political side, stalwart American patriot Griffith of course compares the French Revolution to the American one (which inspired the former) and concludes that the French version was a bit of a cockup, since it ended in tyranny and failed communism (or “bolshevism” as Griffith prefers to call it). It’s hard to disagree with him, but while the sequences of the apish masses carousing in the streets or demanding heads to be chopped off have the ring of realism to them, the one-note characterisation of Danton, Robespierre and assorted noblemen reduces the political complexities to a fairy tale simplicity, robbing Griffith’s argument of some of its power.

Orphans of the Storm should be seen for its stirring, milling, explosive scale and the performances of Schildkraut, La Verne and the Gish sisters, but certainly not for its qualities as a think piece on the French Revolution.

Rating: 7 of 10.

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Book review: Dante Alighieri – The Divine Comedy

Posted in Book reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 30, 2015 by Mistlake

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Dante is lost in the woods – metaphorically, one assumes – when he is met by the spirit of the poet Virgil (whose greatest hit is The Aeneid), who says he is on a mission from Dante’s dead love Beatrice to show him hell and heaven so that he may mend his ways and achieve salvation.

There is no denying that The Divine Comedy is of inestimable importance in the development of European thought and literature in a post-Roman world (the poem was written in the early 14th Century), nor that in many ways it sums up and expands upon Medieval Christian mythology, nor that it proved once and for all that real art could be created in Italian (and other national tongues), not just in Latin, which was still the dominant literary language of the time. These are a few of the concessions I’m willing to make, and many a scholar throughout the centuries has exalted Dante to the status of superhuman genius, so there is obviously a lot to the guy. But, to the modern day reader with a genuine interest in literature but no interest in analyzing it into oblivion, is The Divine Comedy, as it were, the good stuff?

Well, I don’t know Italian, Medieval or otherwise, so I’ve only read this book in translation. Said translation (Ingvar Björkeson’s Swedish one) is acknowledged as a good one, but I do hope the verse sounds a hell of a lot better in the original, because the version I’ve ogled can’t hold a candle to Shakespeare or Homer (or Virgil, for that matter). It contains many brilliant descriptions of heavenly light shows and – famously – inventively sadistic suffering in a vividly constructed Inferno, but many of Dante’s similes and metaphors (quite a few of them extended in absurdum in the classical style) are tediously repeated several times like encores at a best-of concert (yes, lightning is indeed very fast, Dante, don’t keep going on about it). Strangely, the poetry works better if read as poetic prose rather than lyrical verse, since there is a chatty quality to it rather than the ringing, clanging melodiousness of other epic poems.

Physical description is Dante’s strong point, painting living, breathing worlds outside of our own and filling them in with masses of detail and structural systems (hell, it turns out, is a highly organised, compartmentalized place). Many of the organizational arrangements of the hierarchical levels of Inferno and Paradise are borrowed from the various mystics Dante loved, and they give him the chance to show off his wide, esoteric reading habits. This is all very interesting if you have an edition as rich in explanatory footnotes as mine, but if you try reading The Divine Comedy without what we can call a road map to the places, thought systems and characters, you’ll soon find yourself lost in Dante’s obscure references.

Unsurprisingly, the first part, “Inferno”, is far more arresting than “Purgatory” or “Paradise”, which two latter sections drop virtually everything except long-winded, cloudily reasoned “logical explanations” about the nature of god and heaven, and about the “evidence” for their existence. This soon gets boring in its over-earnest, pious repetitiveness.

Guided by Virgil (and later on by others), Dante travels through realm after realm, making himself guilty of vast quantities of namedropping. Technically, the book is a narrative poem, but the scant story just serves as a clothes-hanger from which hangs a plethora of natter with the departed souls Dante encounters. These fall into three categories: 1) famous historical people such as various European kings, along with Plato and Aristotle, 2) famous fictional characters such as Odysseus and the Virgin Mary, and 3) people who are in Inferno/Purgatory/Paradise solely based on Dante’s personal opinion of them.

The conversations he has are often a kind of faux-Socrates style “investigation”, which is really just a whole lot of drivel trying to make sense of religious faith and the nature of god and the architecture of heaven and hell, as if any of those things actually could make sense. Dante’s whole faith and philosophy, and his theories about his “holy” subject matter take the form of a strange hodgepodge of Christian mysticism, Graeco-Roman mythology and a smattering of science to make his dragged-out-of-his-rear-end ideas sound superficially plausible.

Dante’s visual imagination and advanced taste in reading matter are impressive, but ultimately the whole poem becomes more misguidedly didactic and garrulous than beautifully resonant. He sounds like a guy whose primary goal is to convince the reader of a non-cohesive idiot belief of no substance. Which is of course exactly what he hopes to achieve. One could have wished that he had spent more effort on the poetry and general sense of awe, wonder and terror, where his strengths lie. As it is, The Divine Comedy gets dull rather quickly, and also waters down much of its power through the absolute opposite of the noble, selfless religion Dante espouses, namely his recurring, small-minded bitching about Italy, his hometown of Florence and the people who exiled him from there in real life.

One more thing: despite all the thought Dante put into erecting his Paradise, it comes across as singularly unappetizing place, where all you do is feed the ego of a smug megalomaniac by singing all day about how great he is. The fact that this god equates “infinite mercy” with boiling people in hell just makes him look like that much more of a real pal.

So no, I don’t think The Divine Comedy is the good stuff. If I wanted to be facetious – which of course I do – I could say it has a great setting, but needs a better story and more well-rounded characters. And far less backyard “theorizing”.

I’d like to leave you with a quote from Dante, in which he is blissfully unaware that he is perfectly describing his own random grab bag of theological ideas: “Do not hasten towards yes and no in matters where your eye is blurred; foremost among fools is he who thoughtlessly and without discernment denies or claims something he has not tried. An opinion one makes without reflection often leads astray, and the love that arises for it locks up reason.”

Rating: 5 of 10 in terms of reading pleasure. A lot more than that as a view into the early 14th Century mindset.

Gustave Doré's famous illustrations often upstage Dante's text.

Gustave Doré’s famous illustrations often upstage Dante’s text.

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Film review: Way Down East (1920)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 27, 2015 by Mistlake

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Director: D.W. Griffith. Writers: Anthony Paul Kelly, D.W. Griffith, based on the play by William A. Brady and Lottie Blair Parker. Starring: Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Lowell Sherman, Burr McIntosh, Josephine Bernard, George Neville, Mary Hay, Creighton Hale.

 

Lascivious Lennox Sanderson (Sherman) stages a fake wedding to get to have sex with innocent Anna Moore (Gish). His plan succeeds, leaving Anna disgraced with a baby born out of wedlock.

Way Down East is an old fashioned film even given its date. The central idea of a poor waif in tragic circumstances was a Victorian staple, as was of course the notion that there is something horrid and unforgiveable about an unmarried woman having sex or giving birth. Certainly today, there is still a double standard as to the sexual behaviour of men and women respectively, but in no reasonably civilised society is it enough to have a woman ostracized the way Anna is in this story. As a view back at women’s situation in earlier times (and still, in too many parts of the world), Way Down East has its interest, but it’s perfectly laughable that Griffith felt the need to have Anna tricked into bed so that he could tell his tale but still keep his heroine pure as snow (one of his obsessions).

Always a great actress, Lillian Gish’s early career specialty was grieving and suffering while remaining cute as a button. That combination is quite irresistible, and she alone creates what emotional investments one can make in this film. Unfortunately, not even she can save it, due to some strange scripting decisions which terminally dilute Anna’s story.

The pompous title cards at the start tell us that this is to be a tale of the misfortune of women in a society more permissive towards men … and then the movie itself turns out to be predominantly lowbrow slapstick with an all action finale (which is admittedly inventive and exciting). Once Anna finds tentative refuge in a rich farmer’s household, Way Down East is overrun by a wide assortment of mugging yokels and other silly archetypes, among whom Anna’s pain and worry stand out like isolated segments added in from an entirely different movie.

So a film that presents itself as striking a blow for monogamy and women’s rights spends most of its duration romanticizing rural life while poking fun at it. Apart from Gish and Barthelmess, the actors don’t help matters either, delivering performances as broad as they can possible muster. And Barthelmess, good as he is, has a thankless role, in fact the traditionally female one, mostly just walking around pining for love.

Way Down East is nice to look at. Some of its indoor sets look stagier – perhaps due to the camera setups – than in earlier Griffith productions, but there are some lovely outdoor scenes, including the thrill-packed finale among ice floes rushing down a river.  Eye candy is, however, not enough to make movie great or even good. And what’s with the eternal barn dancing sequence? Scenes of music and dancing in silent movies always have something ridiculous about them, and this one overstays its non-existent welcome by what feels like hours.

The American Museum of Modern Art has made a tolerable restoration of Way Down East. Among the work they’ve done is replacing a few lost scenes with stills and/or descriptive title cards. The restoration means that the film is now a two and a half hour monstrosity, bloated way beyond the needs of the flimsy premise. My guess is that the previously available 100 minute version is more digestible – nothing wrong with long movies, it’s just that there’s nothing in Way Down East to warrant such an exorbitant running time. Go with Griffith’s, Gish’s and Barthelmess’ superior Broken Blossoms instead. This is just a wafer thin melodrama of a type that was out of fashion before the first frame was shot.

Rating: 4 of 10. More Gish and fewer rural retards would have raised it a point or two.

For a different opinion on this film, visit the excellent Movies Silently blog via this link.

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Film review: Broken Blossoms (1919)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 16, 2015 by Mistlake

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Director: D.W. Griffith. Writer: D.W. Griffith, based on a short story by Thomas Burke. Starring: Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Donald Crisp, Arthur Howard, Edward Peil Sr., George Beranger, Norman Selby.

This review contains some spoilers.

A Chinese man (Barthelmess) leaves China to spread Buddhism in Great Britain, but before long he’s reduced to being a disillusioned shop keeper in London’s squalid Limehouse district. His eye is caught by Lucy (Gish), a young girl suffering under her abusive father, the alcoholic boxer Battling Burrows (Crisp)

The late 19th and the early 20th Century saw a peculiar fondness for impoverished, angelically patient little waifs in the style of Dickens’ Little Dorrit. These impossibly saintly girls were, according to the norm, to go through much crying, want and cruelty before emerging, with childlike gratitude, into a happy ending (meaning of course marriage). Lucy is such a character, and superficially, Broken Blossoms seems to be such a story. But there is much more to it than that, and events in it don’t follow the typical template.

As expected, Broken Blossoms is weepy to the point where you’re probably expected to keep a basin by your seat so you can wring out your handkerchief at regular intervals. At the same time, however, it is unremittingly nasty, having Lucy and the Chinese man go through a level of suffering that is on a completely different level from what you would find in most tales of this type. There is a certain poetic justice to the ending, but it’s most emphatically not a happy one, and in fact the softer, happier moments experienced by the two lead characters can be measured in minutes rather than hours. And poor Lucy never does learn how to smile.

This sort of thing is emotional audience manipulation at its most extreme, but one does care about Lucy and the Chinese man, perhaps partly thanks to just how vicious fate is being towards them. Another reason for one’s allegiance to these two people consists of the way they’re played: they share similar patterns of movement (whether this was intentional or not), both of them moving like little birds who have been so manhandled by life that they remain in a continual state of hesitation and trepidation. In short, they seem brittle. One wishes to reach out to them and reassure them, make things better. Alas, one can’t, and it’s not the kind of story where happiness is about to shine its rays upon them. In fact, even Griffith himself allegedly found Broken Blossoms so sad and depressing that he had a hard time editing it.

Naturally, a film that hinges so critically on the audience caring deeply about its lead characters, needs the very best of actors. Lillian Gish is, as always, sublime: deeply emotional without even coming close to overacting, her face and eyes conveying every ounce of the sadness and weariness permeating Lucy. Her strange movements never feel contrived, but rather like the natural tics picked up by someone who has spent her entire life lonely, disappointed and tired to the bone. Towards the end of the film, Gish has a tour de force scene of pure anguish and terror, and the way she plays it and the way it is edited makes it one of the most unforgettable film sequences I’ve ever witnessed. Gish carries the film and almost singlehandedly lifts it out of the “dusty antique” corner where it might have ended up based solely on its old-fashioned storyline and sad-little-waif clichés.

Barthelmess is a different kettle of fish. His performance cannot be faulted, and arguably he has more to work with than Gish in terms of pure character, since the Chinese man is no angel (he partakes of the opium pipe from time to time), and one gets the sense that he’s always thinking more than he’s saying. A fine acting job, but there is of course the problem (more obvious today than in 1919, I’m sure) of having a Chinese character played by a Caucasian who couldn’t pass for Asian even in a dark cellar. This casting choice (standard practice until well into the 1950s) bugs me to no small extent, but one has to take it for what it is: a relic of the time when the film was shot.

Battling Burrows is as one-note as they come, just a horrible brute with no redeeming features, but Crisp delivers a forceful performance, which is notable for the boxing match at the end, in which Crisp and Selby go at it in medium shots that make clear that they’re not pulling their punches.

Due to Birth of a Nation, Griffith has a reputation as something of a racist, but if he was, his bigotry evidently did not extend to Chinese people. The Chinese in this film are generally portrayed as far more sensible and admirable than the Englishmen, and, especially in the early parts, we’re shown some painstakingly researched tableaux of genuine Chinese culture. That the male lead is played by a chalk white American is not Griffith’s fault specifically, but that of Western mentality in general, so I would go so far as to say that Broken Blossoms is a rare example of racial tolerance during an era where “The Yellow Peril” was a term on most everyone’s lips in the Western world.

In terms of the feelings and events depicted, Broken Blossoms adheres to the “why use a fine brush when you can toss the entire paint bucket at the wall” school of subtlety, but sometimes less isn’t more. Sometimes more is more. It’s a gripping, heart wrenching film that takes wing to soar far above its genre conventions.

Rating: 8 of 10.

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Book review: William Shakespeare – Henry VI, Part 3

Posted in Book reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 7, 2015 by Mistlake

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This review contains some spoilers.

King Henry VI is too mild-mannered and forgiving, and Richard Duke of York too easily distracted by shiny objects – specifically Henry’s crown – for there to be any lasting peace in England. And while York, following some initial martial success, is soon dealt with through the determination of Margaret, Henry’s less forgiving queen, the royal couple ain’t seen nothing yet: York’s three sons Edward, George and Crookback Richard are just as rebellious as their father and decide to give this whole insurrection thing a gory go.

There is plenty of violence in all the Henry VI plays, but the third one ups the ante yet further. There is much stabbing of children, people dying en masse in one battle after the other, plentiful beheadings, and the artificial but still touching scene where Henry observes a father unwittingly killing his son and a son unwittingly killing his father (a scene which feels more 20th Century topical drama than 16th Century history play). This, then, is Shakespeare’s earthquake of a rendition of the War of the Roses, a conflict which in reality was a rather less bloody affair, at least in terms of the number of casualties.

The scope of the slaughter is not the only component with which Shakespeare takes a lot of licence; unlike the previous parts, here we see the author rather faithless to actual history, putting the need for thrills and dramatic structure ahead of factual considerations. The most noticeable instance of fabrication is the way Richard of Gloucester (the future Richard III) takes an active part throughout the war, despite having been – in real life – a child for most of it. Then there’s the characterisation of Richard Duke of York as a power mad would-be usurper when in fact many people believe he had a better title to the crown than Henry VI. In all fairness, this is mentioned in the play. (A small aside: a dear English friend of mine was a staunch socialist and anti-royalist, but would frequently burst into fiery speeches about the unfairness of York never being crowned king.)

The dramatic Shakespearean changes to the real story virtually all work in the play’s favour, as it’s nowhere near as messy as Part 2 in terms of random characters showing up to mystify the audience. Part 3, too, features oodles of people and events – historical and fictitious – but they are better integrated into the overall plot and are mostly easier to tell apart from one another. In fact, 3 Henry VI abounds in something the second part lacks: memorable characterisations. Whereas the second play really only had Jack Cade, the third one has Warwick the Kingmaker, Richard of Gloucester, lascivious Edward of York, steely queen Margaret and the by now more sharply defined Henry VI – all of them characters who appeared in the previous installments, but who become far more vivid (and prone to spouting classic lines) than before.

In some respects Warwick is the true head of state during both Henry’s and Edward’s tenures on the throne (he’s not known as the Kingmaker for nothing), and his arrogance, machinations and changeable allegiances are the spine of the entire play. No less fascinating is Queen Margaret who, over the course of the three plays, evolves from an innocent young girl into a first rate diplomat and military strategist, her motives constantly questioned by others with an interest in ruling the realm.

And then there’s Richard of Gloucester, who didn’t do much in Part 2, but who spends his time in Part 3 changing from, if you will pardon the comparison, Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader. His breaking point comes when his brother Edward ignores his advice and takes a bride highly unsuitable and politically dangerous to the Yorkist future. Following this scene, in which Richard feels betrayed by his previously cherished brother, he starts becoming more recognizable: he reveals to the audience his new idea of gaining the throne for himself, he begins to develop his trademark psycho sense of humour, and plunges headlong into a gleeful orgy of murder. Oh, I do love that guy, unpardonable monster as he may be.

Looking up from the minutiae of characterisation to view the big picture, 3 Henry VI is a huge, loud and warlike play that revels in the metric tons of carnage and betrayal it depicts, but like so often with Shakespeare, there’s a more sober and reflective side to the work as well. One really does feel the futility of this, erm, game of thrones, and easily sympathises with Henry VI when he has his monologue about the relative happiness of common people compared to the fear, violence and treachery suffered by those living in the more rarefied airs of the royal and noble hierarchy. As soon as one person has installed himself as king, six others begin plotting his downfall, and so it goes on and on.  This is not merely discussed in Henry’s soliloquies (and similar ones in, for example, Richard II), but also shown in the story at large, where martial victory and defeat are fickle things, undulating to and fro, fortune smiling on this side, then that, aided and abetted by the equally fickle loyalties of the various throne pretenders’ supporters. This whole, more philosophical – almost existentialist – layer of the play culminates in Warwick’s final speech, which is tragic and beautiful enough to bring tears at least to my eyes.

Quite simply, The Third Part of Henry VI is an excellent play, moving at a snappy tempo while stopping to sound the depths as needed. Downsides? Not numerous or big ones: the last two acts feel a lot like one big, winking foreshadowing of Richard III, and then there’s the unintended hilarity of our dear Bard’s brownnosing depiction of young Henry Richmond, later Henry VII and grandfather to Shakespeare’s benefactress Queen Elizabeth.

3 Henry VI ends the trilogy with a bang, but of course all three plays form part of a gigantic eight play sequence, and quite rightly the real climax comes in the next and final part, Richard III.

Rating: 8 of 10.

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Richard Duke of York

Forensic recreation of the facial features of Richard of Gloucester, aka Richard III.

Forensic recreation of the facial features of Richard of Gloucester, aka Richard III.

Book review: William Shakespeare – Henry VI, Part 2

Posted in Book reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 29, 2015 by Mistlake

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Having lost France in its entirety, England is in turmoil. The people’s discontent is brewing, and the peers of the realm pounce upon the weakness of their king Henry VI, plotting against him and each other to further their own agendas. In fact, the seemingly unassuming Richard Duke of York even has his mind set on winning the throne for himself.

This play (originally titled The First Part of the Contention of the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster just to confuse things) is quite a different animal from Part 1. The second part is an entirely domestic affair, although the shadow of the failed French wars lingers over everything going on, and the play has enough to chew on without going abroad for material. Too much to chew on, perhaps, for it lacks the sleek narrative flow of its predecessor (which, in all fairness, was written a couple of years later).

Characters abound as Shakespeare tries to cram in everyone who had any significant part to play in the War of the Roses and its surrounding occurrences. People like Lord Scales (the master of the Tower of London) and Alexander Iden (who earns the king’s gratitude in a specific way) and others have one or two scenes apiece, making 2 Henry VI a little bit scattershot, the very epitome of the confusing history play, where numbers of people show up all of a sudden without much context or explanation. On the one hand, this displays an uncommon degree of verisimilitude on Shakespeare’s part, since he’s not playing as fast and loose with historical accuracy as he would later in his career, but on the other hand, one could perhaps wish he had combined certain characters to reduce the number of bewildering cameos. I consider myself possessed of a tolerable knowledge of English history, but I’ve still had to read and watch 2 Henry VI a few times to make sense of it.

Compounding the problem of this wild-grown garden of personages is the fact that it takes quite a while before anything resembling a central character emerges. The title character is feebler than ever, a mere pawn in the power games played around him, and while York is constantly in the background pulling strings, he is not actually on stage that much (something that changes in Part 3). However, once York tasks commoner Jack Cade with starting a rebellion, Cade becomes the sole focus of the dramatics.

Cade and his ignorant, easily swayed followers (mainly butchers, weavers and other craftsmen) become the colourful character roster the play sorely needs. The one performance I’ve seen of 2 Henry VI (the BBC one from 1983) makes this rabble army tremendously annoying goons you just want to see punished severely this instant, not for their rebellion, but for their knuckle dragging apishness. In the text of the play, Cade and company are still repulsive enough in their hatred of anything above their own atavistic level (for instance, they kill a man just for being able to write his own name), but they’re also quite entertaining. Cade himself is a vicious, remorseless killer and iconoclast, horrifying in his brutish passion for violence and destruction, but he is also a buffoon. His pretentions and ludicrous claims of noble blood have his own people making continual fun of him behind his back. This mixture of frightening monster and blithering idiot makes Cade unforgettable even apart from the strangely 20th Century-sounding communist dictatorship he promises his adherents if they will help put him on the throne.

While Cade is far and away the most vivid character in the play, we’re also introduced to someone who will become more electrifying yet: York’s son Richard, who will of course go on to star in his own play, Richard III, as the vilest bastard in all of Shakespeare’s work (with possible competition from Iago). Richard doesn’t show much of his evil in 2 Henry VI, but it’s good to “see” him. He, like his father, becomes more prominent in the next play in the sequence.

There is much murder and mayhem in the pages of 2 Henry VI, so one can’t fault its liveliness. It’s an action packed play, a sprawling historical pageant where you can’t complain about the spectacle, drama, dialogue, juicy scheming or even humour, but whose overall construction would have been more elegant if Shakespeare had done his usual thing, suiting history to his story rather than the other way around. Maybe one can excuse him, since 2 Henry VI was one of his earliest plays. Also, while it does have a proper ending, it does feel like its main job is setting the stage for Part 3, which deals with the War of the Roses proper.

For all the play’s flaws and perhaps youthful inexperience, the verse is smooth and gorgeous, containing a classic line or two (“First thing we’ll do let’s kill all the lawyers), as well as stage directions which are too detailed for me to believe they were written by Shakespeare himself. There is no shortage of dramatic speeches and intense emotion in the unsurpassed language that is so characteristic of Shakespeare’s work.

Still a fine play, it’s just that we know that old Shakes could do so much better.

Rating: 7 of 10.

2 Henry VI 3

2 Henry Vi 4

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