- An unfairly maligned interpretation 4/8/2000 12:00:00 AM by JMartin-2
From the very first Shakespeare film (a silent version of "King John," of all things), filmmakers have sought to impose their own unique visions on Shakespeare; in the case of "King John," it was fairly simple (a scene of John signing the Magna Carta, which isn't in Shakespeare's play). Ever since, Shakespeare adaptations have faced the difficulty of remaining true to the greatest writer in the history of the English language while bringing something new to the table; filmed plays, after all, belong on PBS, not in the cinema.
Luckily, the minds behind this adaptation of "Richard III" is more than up to the challenge. To be fair, putting the movie in an alternate 1930's Fascist England doesn't serve the sort of lofty purpose that, say, Orson Welles' 1930s updating of "Julius Caesar" (intended to condemn the Fascist governments in Europe at that time) did. What it does do is allow the filmmakers to have a lot of fun. It's not necessarily more accessible -- the Byzantine intrigues and occasionally confusing plot can't be tempered by simply moving the setting ahead 500 years -- but it's definitely more entertaining. There's just something inherently amusing about Richard sneaking off for a pee after the "winter of our discontent" speech (still rambling on as he, ahem, drains the main), or giving the "my kingdom for a horse!" bit while trying to get his Jeep out of the mud.
To be sure, the Fascist England shown in the film isn't very convicing -- from OUR historical hindsight -- but this isn't our world, this is a world fashioned from the imagination that just happens to look like our own, just as Shakespeare's were. You can't criticize "King Lear" for its faux-historical setting any more than you can criticize this film for the same reason.
The complaint registered by a previous commentator -- more or less, "if you're going to move Shakespeare to a new period, you need to be true to that period" -- is utter bollocks, really. After all, it is inherently "untrue" to have people running around speaking Elizabethan dialogue in the 1700s, 1800s, 1900s, etc., so if you try to remain "true," you end up stripping away the dialogue -- the very essence of Shakespeare. I agree with the even more controversial Shakesperean theatre director Peter Sellars in that words are not what makes Shakespeare great, but rather his characters and ideas. But Shakespeare communicated those through his words, and if you change them, it's not Shakespeare anymore. The same commentator pointed to Branagh's more faithful interpretations as a counterweight to this film, yet Branagh's "Hamlet" is not only set in the 18th century but in a country that looks nothing like 1700s Denmark, even though the characters refer to it as such.
The complaints about McKellen's "hamminess" are equally unfounded. What are they using as their basis of comparision? Olivier? Olivier's Richard makes McKellen's look positively restrained by comparision. Richard is egotistical, bombastic, and prone to spouting lines like "thine eyes, sweet lady, have infected mine." I have little doubt in my mind that Skakespeare did not intend Richard to be played "straight" -- indeed, if Shakespeare had any concept of what we call "camp," he was probably thinking of it when he wrote the play. From this point of view, the "silly" little touches like the Al Jolson song at the end and even the newsreel of Richard's coronation fit in perfectly.
As with most Shakespeare films, the plot has been streamlined -- nearly all of the characters are here, but scenes and speeches have been truncated and removed, but despite what some have said, these aren't fatal to the plot or the characters. Richard's seduction of Anne does seem to occur to quickly, but it's not a completely successful one, seeing how she lapses into drug addiction later in the film. Besides, Richard's evil has nothing to do with the fact that his "inability to experience romantic love." Richard isn't a psychological portrait like Hamlet, he's a ruthless bastard, a piece of Tudor propaganda. When people praise "Richard III" (the play), it's not for its character depth.
I notice I've focused more on answering the film's detractors instead of dilineating its merits; in a way, I guess this expresses how much I like it. The cinematography, direction, and acting are all top-notch. The sets are perfect, once you realize that this is NOT historical England -- the power plant subbing for the Tower is more imposing than the real thing could ever be, and the factory ruins that serve as Bosworth Field are certainly more interested than a bunch of tanks and Jeeps roaming around the open countryside. Shakespeare purists will, of course, hate it, but then they hate anyone who dares to put anything more than a cosmetic spin on the Bard, be it Welles' "Voodoo 'Macbeth'" or Brook's stage production of "Titus Andronicus." For everyone else, read the play, then see the movie -- it'll help increase your appreciation of both.
- Justice made to Richard III 2/1/2006 12:00:00 AM by OttoVonB
"Richard III" may not have the all-encompassing understanding of uman nature seen in "Hamlet" or the grace and mastery of "The Tempest", but for my money is one of the greatest plays ever written and certainly Shakespeare's most entertaining.
It may be lacking in character development and psychology, but it more than makes up for that with a brilliant concept: have the villain as main character and make the audience his playful confident. The concept is aided further by eminently quotable lines and one great scene after the other of scheming, fiendishness and confrontations. One of the few pieces of criticism you can successfully throw at Shakespeare is that his central characters are often meek or feeble. Not so here! Tudor propaganda this might have been (it quite grotesquely disregards historical fact in a few places), this is storytelling at its finest.
Richard Loncraine's 1995 film places the story in a fictitious 30s England reminiscent of early Nazi Germany. The device serves to make the proceedings more accessible (if only marginally since the original language has thankfully been preserved). It also makes for amusing situations (Richard of York telling his monologue while taking a leak in a public restroom - "my Kingdom for a Horse!" bellowed from a paralyzed jeep) and serves as further proof of the Bard's timelessness.
Beyond the structural and technical feats - and they are quite excellent without exception, including Trevor Jones underrated dark jazzy score - lies what should be our main concern: the cast. Sir Ian McKellen as Richard is a Machiavellian wonder, blowing both Lawrence Olivier's rendition and McKellen's earlier work away. His fiendish creation is a joy to watch and root for, despite the increasing gruesomeness of his crimes. The byzantine plot demands that recognizable faces be cast in supporting roles and the characters are magnificently portrayed by eminent actors giving it their best and succeeding admirably. Maggie Smith, Jim Broadbent and Kristin Scott-Thomas are expectedly great, but the truly outstanding supporting performances come as surprises: Annette Benning is all grief and fury, Adrian Dunbar is eerie yet very human as Richard's pet killer Tyrell and Nigel Hawthorne is incredibly moving as the meek Clarence. Even Robert Downey Jr. manages to hold his own against this impressive array of actors.
All in all if you can appreciate the language (that only gets better with repeated readings/viewings) and have a thirst for fine acting, it would be criminal to ignore this masterpiece.
- See Olivier's "Richard III," then this one 6/20/2005 12:00:00 AM by vfrickey
There are two definitive film productions of Richard III: - Sir Laurence Olivier's 1955 film version, which he directed and in which he plays the title role, supported by Sir Cedric Hardwicke as King Edward, Sir John Gielgud as Clarence, the delectable Claire Bloom as the Lady Anne and a host of other brilliant performers - and Ian McKellen's 1995 version, screenwritten by McKellen and director Richard Loncraine, in which McKellen also plays the title role.
While the Olivier version is the definitive classic presentation of the play on film and should serve anyone who wants to see the play as it was intended to be seen (albeit the Colley Cibber adaptation), McKellen's adaptation captures the spirit of the play in modern context.
The movie opens with the Lancastrians in their war room receiving word of Richard, Earl of Gloucester's holding Tewksbury by teletype, then soon their war room is breached by a tank, behind which swarm raiders in gas masks, one of whom slays the Prince of Wales and then the King himself, before removing his gas mask (one of the old goggle-eyed full-face models the Russians still use) to reveal himself Richard, duke of Gloucester.
The scene shifts rapidly to a typical 1930s rich people's fete, complete with mellow-voiced torch singer and live orchestra, at which Richard III delivers the "sun of York" soliloquy as a toast to his father Edward and the assembled party - and then the scene shifts again to Richard completing the soliloquy to the camera, as he does throughout the film. The address to the camera is a little jarring - McKellen's smiling, evilly smirking delivery is a little over the top, what you'd imagine the Blackadder films would have been if they hadn't gone for laughs.
But Ian McKellen carries the role off very well... his not-quite-sane, quite unbalanced and power-mad schemer Richard III is entirely plausible as a 1930s dictator-king in the central European mold. The uniforms shift from the standard British armed forces' khakis to the blacks and greys of Hitler and Mussolini as Britain slides into fascism under her scheming "Lord Protector."
The screen action is taut, visually compelling - even when McKellen bellows "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!" from a World War II Dodge weapons carrier/"command car," the scene doesn't degenerate into incongruous, unintentional comedy, because by then the viewer is caught up in the tale of this wild-eyed sociopath who has just about run out of rope - and since the truck is axle-deep in sand, stuck, a horse is just what Richard could have used around then.
There's just enough realism in the 1930's props to help with willing suspension of disbelief - no more. Military history buffs will not be happy. No matter. What is communicated very well is the senseless welter of fully-joined battle, fiery slaughter and Richard III's lashing out in senseless rage, eventually as much against his own men as the enemy.
The Duke of Stanley's last-minute defection against Richard's forces in the final battle is all the sharper for Stanley being the commander of the air force (his loyalty to Richard III in the coming battle with Henry, Earl of Richmond seemingly assured by his young son's being held hostage in Richard III's war train) - so that the viewer no sooner hears the news of the defection in the play's dialogue than Richard's forces are strafed and bombed by Stanley's war planes as Richmond's forces swarm into Richard's assembly area, cutting the Ricardian army to pieces.
Lots of interesting touches in the screenplay, such as Queen Elizabeth and her brother Earl Rivers (played ably by Annette Bening and rather indifferently by Robert Downey, Jr - who only manages to convince in the scene when he is assassinated in bed while submitting to the erotic ministrations of a Pan Am stewardess) playing their roles as Americans - using the homage to Wallis Simpson and her husband the Duke of Windsor (who abdicated his kingdom to marry Simpson because she wasn't only a commoner but a divorced American) to bring needed tension among the royals to the play.
In case the viewer's a little too thick to realize that Downey's character is an American, not only does he lay the flat, nasal accent on thicker than Hell, but on landing in England, he steps out of an airliner painted in bright Pan-American Airlines livery, where he is met by his royal sister Elizabeth and her children.
Bening's performance is more nuanced and sympathetic than Downey's - the conundrum of Elizabeth's brother being a Peer and obviously an American at the same time is just left out there. But before long, we're McKellen's willing co-conspirators and agree to forget this lapse.
Maggie Smith as Richard's mother Queen Margaret is stellar in her portrayal of a mother torn between the remnants of love for her twisted, lethal offspring and mourning the rest of her family dead because they stood in Richard's way to the throne. Her delivery of Margaret's of the advice Elizabeth asks for on how to curse Richard (Act 4, Scene 4):
O thou well skill'd in curses, stay awhile, And teach me how to curse mine enemies!
Forbear to sleep the nights, and fast the days; Compare dead happiness with living woe; Think that thy babes were fairer than they were, And he that slew them fouler than he is!"
is one of the best-delivered lines in Shakespeare on film I have seen.
In closing one compares McKellen's Richard III to Anthony Hopkins' Hitler in "The Bunker" - an eerie channeling of one of history's foulest personalities, so that one feels one's self in his foul presence watching the show.
- Original, Brilliant Richard 12/8/2002 12:00:00 AM by dromasca
This is one of the movies you remember for a long time - and for all the good reasons. Transplanting Shakespeare in a different time and giving his historical plots a modern political sense is not such a new idea. What is really strong and works well here is the perfect fit between the characters as Shakespeare intended them and the background which is so different from the original historical one. Each one of the characters is both shakespearian as intended, a perfect citizen of the fictional time created by the director - a fascist England in the 30s - and more than everything else a human being: sensual, hating and loving as only humans do.
Perfectly acted, almost flawlessly directed, with very little overweight, this film is a feast for the intelligent spectator, a brutal, well-paced and expressive piece of art - and exactly as Shakespeare would have loved it, a mirror of his time, of our time, and of any time. 9/10 on my personal scale.
- Shakespearean tragedy in 1940s Europe 3/13/2006 12:00:00 AM by mstomaso
This film sets Shakespeare's Richard III in an alternative to WWII era England, where fascists and royalists maintain their own militias and play power games with kings and thrones. The first scene sets the tone for the entire film. A young officer is settling down to dinner with his dog chewing on a bone nearby. The building begins to shake and a low rumbling is heard. Soon enough, a tank erupts through the fireplace and stormtroopers charge in automatic rifles ablaze. Ian McKellan removes his gas mask and spouts a few lines of Shakespearean dialog.
The action and the intrigue never really let up, as the film follows Richard's (McKellan) rise to infamy and power. Neither does the Shakespearean dialog. Somehow the cast manages to make the dialog fit the action and setting effortlessly.
Richard III is jarringly strange - perhaps the most innovative of the recent Shakespeare updates - very well acted and directed. Although I recommend the film, I have to warn you - it's not for everyone.