Benedict Cumberbatch wasn’t cast solely for his sex appeal as English King Richard III in PBS’ latest take on William Shakespeare. Same goes for Gael García Bernal, returning as a Lothario conductor in Amazon’s “Mozart in the Jungle” (⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars). But they just might get a wary audience hooked on classics.
“The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses” (⋆⋆⋆½ out of four stars), running three consecutive Sundays, isn’t the best introduction to the Bard. The first two installments incorporate his plays about Richard’s predecessor Henry VI, which are regarded as among Shakespeare’s least compelling. Director Dominic Cooke tries to pump up the action with graphic battle scenes and a cast that includes Judi Dench, but when it comes to personality, Henry VI is the equivalent of Millard Fillmore.
Cumberbatch actually doesn’t appear until deep into Part 2 next week, but he’s a game changer, just as he was as Doctor Strange and Sherlock Holmes. Richard III is a more problematic character, with his hunchback and proclivity for wiping out family members in his quest for the crown.
Rather than downplay his natural magnetism, Cumberbatch emphasizes it, charming the audience by talking directly to the camera, just like Kevin Spacey does in “House of Cards.” He delivers the famous “winter of our discontent” speech that opens the play “Richard III” — and Part 3 of “The Hollow Crown,” airing Christmas Day — more with sly sarcasm than bitterness. Richard’s seduction of the widow Lady Anne, usually a point of incredulity, rings true here.
Shakespeare purists may balk at Cumberbatch’s charismatic performance, but it will draw in viewers normally allergic to soliloquies and costume dramas.
Bernal isn’t blessed with Cumberbatch’s matinee-idol looks. At 5 feet 6, he’s short even by Hollywood standards. He sports weird braids hanging from the back of his head that could be an homage to Jar Jar Binks. But for those pining for a naughty boy, he’s your man.
“Mozart” initially revolved around the growing pains for Hailey (Lola Kirke), an oboist who can’t decide whether she wants to sit first chair or sip Cosmos with the gals from “Girls.” She’s still around, crisscrossing Europe while the rest of the New York Symphony endures a nasty lockout, but the focus is now squarely on Bernal’s Rodrigo, who’s using the hiatus to oversee the comeback of a reclusive opera singer — when he’s not hopping from bed to bed.
When someone asks if he slept with a much younger woman, a twinkle comes to his eyes. “There wasn’t much sleeping,” he says. From another actor, that line might come across as creepy, but Bernal is so unapologetic, so earnest, so gosh darn cute, you’re smitten.
His greatest bit of seduction may be in luring viewers who would rather book a dental appointment than attend an orchestra performance. Before you know it, you’re “tricked” into learning about French composer Olivier Messiaen.
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