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Cinema has been less kind to Richard II; than to its companion plays of the second historical tetralogy. The two spectacular Technicolor versions of Henry V starring Laurence Olivier (1944) and Kenneth Branagh (1989) are familiar to everybody interested in the performance history of the play. And Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight (1966), essentially an elegiac conflation of the two parts of Henry IV with a bit of Henry V added, is almost equally famous, partly because Welles himself played Falstaff with memorable warmth, enlisting John Gielgud for the role of Bolingbroke, who portrayed him as imperious and remote. Gus Van Sant’s imaginatively free adaptation of the same three plays in My Own Private Idaho (1991) – a film about male prostitution in Portland, Oregon, featuring River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves (the Prince Hal figure) with William Richert as the Falstaff surrogate – is justly admired for its sensitive melding of gay underworld culture in 1990s America with Shakespeare’s story of a ne’er-do-well son maturing, not without arrogance, into the privilege guaranteed by his pedigree. No one as culturally gifted or technically distinguished as Olivier, Branagh, Welles or Van Sant has yet succeeded in capturing the splendour or complexity of Richard II; on film, although at least nine attempts to bring this most pageant-like of Shakespeare’s histories to the screen have been recorded.
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