[1995, Richard Loncraine Dir., Stars: Ian McKellen, Annette Bening, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jim Broadbent, Nigel Hawthorne, Edward Hardwicke and Robert Downey Jr.]
Shakespeare does not always translate well to film. For every successful cinematic treatment of the Bard’s work, there are perhaps a dozen or more critical and commercial failures. Shakespeare’s language is dated for today’s audience; complex and hard to follow, with many monologues too long to fit into modern cinematic pacing. Still, there have been, and will continue to be, successful adaptations to the big screen. Back in the 1990’s, Kenneth Branagh was ruler of the roost when it came to Shakespearean cinema. However, there was one adaptation in 1995 that did not come from his hand – Ian McKellen’s Richard III. Even though this film was directed by Richard Loncraine (The Haunting of Julia, Brimstone & Treacle), McKellen was the true creative force behind this incredible re-imagining of the tragedy of Richard of Gloucester. It was he that adapted the script and turned in a truly outstanding performance as the title character.
For those unfamiliar with this popular piece, Richard III tells the story of the deformed youngest son of the House of York, who schemes, murders and manipulates his way into a short-lived possession of the Crown. The story begins with one of the most stirring of Shakespeare’s soliloquys – “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York...” – which both hails the ending of a bloody civil war and preambles Richard’s own dastardly plans to usurp his eldest brother and claim the crown for his own. What follows is a convoluted journey from obscurity to notoriety for Richard, fueled by his ambition and masked by his perceived goodness.
Whether Richard’s hunch-backed and palsied physique is an outer representation of his inner ugliness, or the cause of his sociopathic nature, is certainly open to debate. Suffice it to say, by Richard’s own justification his devious plotting is brought about by the gnawing knowledge that one such as he is built more for war than for the tender pleasures of peace.
Ian McKellen, best known today for his much-lauded portrayal of the wizard Gandalf in Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films, penned his version of Richard III while portraying Richard in a touring production of the play. I don’t know whose idea it was to place this controversial account of 15th century British upheaval in a 1930’s setting, McKellen’s or director Loncraine’s, but the inspiration was an undeniable flash of genius. In the 1930’s, Europe was a hotbed of burgeoning dictatorships, from Franco to Hitler to Stalin; a fitting environment for the likes of Richard of Gloucester. Also, Shakespeare’s intricate iambic pentameter verses do not seem terribly out of place in what many consider the last decade of the “old world.” Taken together, McKellen and Loncraine’s shared vision makes Richard III not only accessible to a modern audience, but engaging as well as strangely fun.
As mentioned, McKellen’s performance was brilliant, as it had to be: he is the focal point of this film and carries the weight of Shakespeare’s darkest character fiercely. It is creepy to watch McKellen so adept at performing tasks with his crippled character’s one good hand, from lighting a cigarette to opening a bottle of gin. Each obsessively precise movement is an eerie reminder of the man’s life-long afflictions (It’s easy to imagine that during the touring production, the man labored long and hard honing the skill of using only his right hand). To anyone who has seen the Lord Of The Rings movies, it’s no great discovery that McKellen has an extremely expressive face, capable of delicately conveying a kaleidoscopic range of emotions in quick succession. This venerable actor utilizes his gift in Richard III to project a smarmy-yet-passionate interpretation of Shakespeare’s most eloquent villain. Richard habitually concludes long monologues of lies with a smirking aside through the fourth wall, letting us, the audience, share in the fun he has in playing his game of thrones. Perfect timing, perfect delivery, McKellen’s performance in my mind easily outshines Olivier’s from 1955.
This film features many noteworthy performances from what was at the time the very cream of the British theater. Kristin Scott-Thomas portrays the Lady Anne, widow of Edward, the Earl of Westminster (whom Richard killed in combat), as a woman whose heartbreak and loss have left her in intense despair. Jim Broadbent plays Buckingham, Richard’s co-conspirator but eventual victim, as a grinning, lackey charlatan, for whom it is hard to muster sympathy when his come-uppance arrives. Maggie Smith is a strong and embittered Duchess of York -- Richard’s mother -- the only person unafraid of the deviant usurper king and the only person who can reach what is left of his twisted heart. Annette Bening delivers what is perhaps the most haunting line of this picture – “Where are my children?!” – when she confronts Richard with the holy fury of a mother with little left to lose. Nigel Hawthorne, Edward Hardwicke and Robert Downey Jr. round out the cast, to name but a few other fine talents, but really everyone who “carried a spear” in this production deserves high praise for their amazing work.
While large action set-pieces were never Shakespeare’s thing (how could they be? He wrote plays to be performed on a small stage in Tudor London!), this version of Richard III still packs some remarkable, sometimes even graphic scenes and locations. From the garish morgue where Kristin Scott Thomas deliver’s Lady Anne’s lament over her husband’s corpse to the final battle at Battersea Power Station, there truly is some striking imagery. These visuals not only keep us engaged, but lend this film the epic scope that this story demands.
Earlier this year, the remains of a man believed to be Richard III were unearthed in a Leicester parking lot. While historical accounts from the era are spotty at best, there are some who believe the true Richard of Gloucester has been given the dirty end of the stick by popular culture -- including in Shakespeare’s play. (It might be worth mentioning, too, that when the Bard penned his script, the ruling British monarch at the time, Elizabeth I, was the granddaughter of the man who took the crown from Richard). This recent archeological find, however, presents us with some curious evidence of Richard’s persona. Not only is the spine of the skeleton twisted, but collateral damage to the remains suggests that when Richard was killed he was given humiliating post-mortem injuries as well. Whatever sort of man Richard was in truth, those who took his life and his crown really hated him.
In this production, as in the great play, Richard is thwarted when his evil comes to light among his family and the other aristocracy. This is presented with swinging jazz-era style. Richard falls to his death at the Battle of Bosworth Field, filmed at the iconic, art deco Battersea Power Station -- best known as the image on the cover of Pink Floyd’s album, “Animals.” The music playing, however, isn’t that of Floyd, but Al Jolson, merrily singing of being on top of the world. We watch Richard descend fittingly into a fiery hell, waving goodbye to us, his audience, and smiling, no regrets. From start to finish, Richard III is cinematic gold, and well worthy of its “cult classic” status.
[“Richard III” is currently available through Netflix on DVD and in some regions as On Demand video. Also, the original 1995 trailer for this film is available on YouTube, should you wish to view it before adding this feature to your watch list.]