MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Drama/ Stars: Ian McKellen, Annette Bening, Jim Broadbent, Robert Downey Jr., Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith, John Wood, Nigel Hawthorne, Adrian Dunbar, Edward Hardwicke, Tim McInnerny, Jim Carter, Dominic West, Roger Hammond, Donald Sumpter, Bill Paterson, Christopher Bowen, Matthew Groom, Marco Williamson/ Runtime: 104 minutes
I feel it is only appropriate to start this review off by asking: was there ever a villain to be found in classic literature who ever matched the ruthlessness of Richard the 3rd? I mean here was a guy who literally murdered at least 10 people in a mad scramble for the crown and yet ultimately each and every one of them died in vain when Richard was finally defeated in battle and stripped of the crown he worked so ruthlessly to obtain. Indeed, despite new evidence that has emerged to suggest the contrary, I think that Richard of Gloucester will go down as one of literature’s finest villains. Of course it should go without saying, but when you manage to achieve that kind of honor you are going to have all kinds of movies made about you: some good, some bad, and some that function best as entertaining train wrecks to watch in utter disbelief. This of course brings us to 1995’s adaptation of The Bard’s Richard III, and yet this isn’t a bad movie. Astonishingly this update of the classic tale is actually, thanks to a risky switch in time period as well as wonderful work from a dependable cast of players, not only a great movie, but also a lot of fun, in the most perverse sense of the word, to watch and definitely one you will enjoy time and time again as twisted as that may be.
The plot is as follows: Moving the action of The Bard’s timeless story up to an alternate 1930’s England, we are quickly introduced to a man by the name of Richard who is the youngest brother in a family of nobles that has just taken power over the country in the course of military action. Yet Richard is not satisfied with being where he is; rather he would love to have the crown that rests on his brother’s head adorn his own. Thus with this goal in mind, we see Richard set out with a gang of co-conspirators on a bloody, murderous, vengeful quest to take power and the crown and have it all to himself. Yet by the end of this campaign at least 10 people will be dead, and Richard himself will learn the hard way that taking power out from under people’s noses may be tumultuous work, but keeping that power may be the hardest thing of all….
Now it goes without saying, but the art of taking one of Shakespeare’s historical plays and depositing it in another specific historical period, such as in Kenneth Branagh’s ’96 masterpiece of Hamlet, is always a bit of a risky thing. The reason this is such a risk is because doing this almost always works better on stage than on screen due to our collective suspension of belief as people being somewhat more liberal in amount when we see it done on a stage rather than on celluloid. Indeed sometimes it’s a trick that works, sometimes it doesn’t, and then there’s times it blatantly doesn’t work period. Yet I think the reason that placing this particular version of Richard III in the 1930s works so well is because of the faithfulness to the source material. A faithfulness I should note that is carried through impeccably in every detail of the film yet never in a way that feels forced or labored. Indeed this film really is a clever, often witty and darkly humorous adaptation of Shakespeare’s masterly examination of one man’s relentless pursuit of power yet what ultimately sells it to you as an audience goer is that it possess both elegance and a style of its own aside from the play it is based on, but also a very healthy respect for Shakespeare’s glorious language and the characters that populate this world for however brief a time.
Now perhaps it is Shakespeare’s unique way with the English language that will ultimately deter some people from fully enjoying this. Yet in response to that I would like to counter-argue that all the language does is merely demand that an audience member pay a little more attention to what is being said than when you engage in the act of watching a “normal” film. Indeed, contrary to what many people may think, the language of The Bard is not difficult or obscure you just have to give it your undivided attention. Thankfully, this movie has chosen to help you in this endeavor by having some of the finest actors around. Indeed these actors are wonderful not only due to their great command of The Bard’s language, but also because they really do possess the ability to present clearly defined yet complex characters that really help us audience goers keep track of just who is who in this Game of Thronesesque web of family connections and intrigue. Yet while the film is significantly shorter than the play, and it does polish the narrative somewhat, this ultimately does not take anything vital away from the unfolding tale of bloodshed and madness.
Now occupying the center-stage (or center-screen, in this case) position is Ian McKellen as Richard and I must say that this is surely one of his finest screen performances, and certainly the one that really made me appreciate his work when I first saw the film. Indeed very much like Olivier before him, McKellen’s take on Richard is a performance that must’ve been perfected through countless performances on stage, and with devilish charm he manages to milks each ounce of scheming, determination and wickedness from his scenes. Yet, unlike Olivier, he also shares with us a certain clumsiness and even pathos, which though it does not excuse in any way his actions does give us some understanding of why he has become the grotesque figure he is. Also of the other performances from the game supporting cast of players, I particularly like Jim Broadbent’s take on the Duke of Buckingham with his beaming face, and eyes of steel silently scheming, listening, and judging the rest of the players in every scene in which he appears, and Annette Bening who also manages to do a terrific job and make so much more out of her part than is written on the page. Yet nevertheless all the actors do wonders when it comes to the conveyance of their own particular “angst’s” and concerns within the tale. In fact my only quibble after multiple viewings is that I only wish it was longer and we saw even more of some of them than what we ultimately get.
Finally though, I must applaud the production designers of the film in regards to both the visual and aural who have managed to create a frighteningly believable alternate 1930’s England. Indeed it is both familiar and alien at the same time and that is what makes the film’s central idea of such a thing possibly happening in England at this time as it did in Germany and Italy and Spain so terrifying. Indeed Shakespeare may have been writing about the 15th century, but suffice it to say that the scheming of despots, hungry for power, is something that will continue to go on as long as man thirsts for power and hungers for control not only over those he loves, but over those he doesn’t even know as well.
All in all Richard III “95” may have been an interesting gamble in some ways when it was first conceived, but it’s a gamble that has paid off beautifully. Indeed thanks to a deep and abiding love of the source material, the wonderful efforts of a game cast and crew, and a phenomenal lead performance by Sir Ian McKellen, Richard III is proof that, when made right, not only can The Bard’s work be perversely fun, but it can also be quite timeless as well. On a scale of 1-5 I give Richard III a solid 4 out of 5.