Shakespeare’s Richard III is not a nice man.
In the course of the play bearing his name, the fiendish British monarch is called (among other things) “that bottled spider,” “thou lump of foul deformity,” “this poisonous bunch-backed toad” and “thou elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog.”
Not exactly talking about Jed Clampett, now, are we?
Of course, this is the fun part of watching both the play and Richard Loncraine’s superb movie adaptation of Richard Eyre’s original stage production. Elizabethan villains are compelling characters, and Richard III is among the best.
But for American audiences, there is a problem: “Richard III” is Shakespeare, and everybody knows that Shakespeare is boring. Right?
Not this time. For when the acting is on the mark (which it mostly is here), when the play has been streamlined (as is the case) and when the look of the film tends more toward familiar images than the fancy robes and capes and wigs of the 16thcentury (we’re talking Nazi chic), then Shakespeare can come as alive as any mainstream Hollywood movie.
Sometimes even more so.
In this film, the great English stage actor Ian McKellan portrays the evil Richard. Fourth in line to the throne, Richard - an able warrior despite disabilities including a hunched back and withered arm - has just led the armies of his eldest brother, King Edward (John Wood), to victory over the rival Lancasters.
Instead of a horse, though, he rides a tank to ultimate victory, which helps date the play. This is not the mid-1500s. This is some time in the 1930s, in an England that closely resembles Nazi Germany - down to the black uniforms, red banners and swastika-like symbols.
After dispatching the Lancaster king and his son, Richard addresses the gathering of victorious Yorks in his now-famous speech that begins:
“Now is the winter of our discontent
“Made glorious summer by this sun of York…”
However, in the midst of this speech, and this is what provides “Richard III” with its power, the ignoble soldier speaks to the audience directly. And his tone changes greatly:
“Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
“By drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams,
“To set my brother Clarence and the King
“In deadly hate the one against the other…”
From there on, the course is set: Richard, by any and all means necessary, will capture his brother’s crown. And we, the audience, are his de facto co-conspirators.
Thus we travel to the end, when a desperately angry Richard ends up crying in vain, “A horse! A horse! My Kingdom for a horse!”
This is not the first movie adaptation of “Richard III.” Laurence Olivier’s 1955 version is still the one with which all others are compared. But it may be the most accessible, particularly to American audiences.
Loncraine, with the aid of production designer Tony Burrough, costumer Shauna Harwood (both Oscar nominees) and director of cinematography Peter Biziou, has made his film a thing of beauty. As Leni Riefenstahl proved in her films of the 1930s, nothing lends itself better to visual splendor than fascist fashion.
Yet no Shakespearean play works on image alone. There’s always that language to get through, and Loncraine benefits from having some of the best English actors in the world to work with (only Kenneth Branagh is missing).
McKellan, whose filmed seminars on Shakespearean acting have been a Public Television staple, is simply masterful. Never has evil been played so gleefully. From skillfully seducing the widow of a man he has just murdered to waking from a terrorfilled nightmare, McKellan portrays Richard as a complex study of the blackest of hearts.
He isn’t alone. Nigel Hawthorne (“The Madness of King George”) breaks your heart as the poor, doomed Clarence. Jim Broadbent (“Bullets Over Broadway”) is suitably duplicitous as Buckingham. Adrian Dunbar (“The Crying Game”) is the coldest assassin imaginable, and Kristin Scott Thomas (“Four Weddings and a Funeral”) ably embodies the emotional devastation that Richard proudly wreaks.
The only real problem with this production involves the casting of two notable American actors, Annette Bening and Robert Downey Jr. While both are talented in their own right, they suffer by comparison to actors whose accents fit around Shakespeare’s dialogue like cream over strawberries.
In the end, though, it is McKellan whom we remember long after the curtain has fallen. Tearing through the fabric of gentility like an Iago on steroids, McKellan’s Richard never compromises his vision of a world that will bow, ultimately, and only to him.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: ‘Richard III’ ***-1/2 Location: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Directed by Richard Loncraine, starring Ian McKellan, Annette Bening, Jim Broadbent, Robert Downey Jr., Nigel Hawthorne, Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith, John Wood and Adrian Dunbar Running time: 1:44 Rating: R
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