41 of 42 people found the following review helpful
on May 25, 2000
Ian McKellen's "Richard III" is a brilliant 20th Century adaptation of the Shakespeare original. McKellen sets the murderous intrigue and civil strife of the play in an imaginary fascist period of English History. In doing this, he removes the story from its historical context and demonstrates the timeless nature of its themes. The original story was set during the War of the Roses, a bitter succession conflict which took place in pre-Tudor England. None of the medieval butchery is lost on us when we see it take place in a fascist context.
The central theme of Richard III is not ambition or ruthlessness but the power of momentum. Richard relies on both physical and rhetorical momentum for his success. Physically, he must always be on the move. Once his movement is stopped he is doomed. Richard makes this abundantly clear in the play and in the film when his transportation is destroyed at the Battle of Bosworth field and he can no longer move. Richard says "a horse a horse,my kingdom for a horse" meaning that without movement he loses the battle and with it his life and his kingdom. This signature death speech is even a bit ironic in the film since it is Richard's jeep that is shot out from him which means that he is speaking metaphorically when he refers to it as a horse. What could be more fitting for a fascist leader?
Momentum is also crucial to Richard's rhetoric. On two occasions in the play, Richard must convince a woman whose husband he has murdered to marry him. Richard accomplishes this the first time by matching each of the widow's arguments with a witty retort until she has none left. But Richard is later unable to do this with the second widow. He begins his confident stream of witty retorts but is flustered by and then outdone by her. Rhetorically he has lost his momentum and with it his power to dominate and control.
Momentum is as crucial to modern despots as it was to the tyrants of Shakespeare's time. Hitler mesmerized a generation of Germans with speeches whose content made little sense but whose momentum carried the day. And like Richard III, Hitler was only successful as long as his army could keep on the move. I wonder if any Panzer driver stuck in the mud and snow of Stalingrad in 1942 found himself muttering "a horse a horse, my kindom for a horse"?
58 of 64 people found the following review helpful
on May 29, 2005
A gala ball: The York family celebrate their reascent to power; the War of Roses (named for the feuding houses' heraldic badges: Lancaster's red and York's white rose) is almost over. Actually, the year is 1471, but for present purposes, we're in the 1930s. A singer delivers a swinging "Come live with me and be my love." Richard of Gloucester (Sir Ian McKellen), the reinstated sickly King Edward IV's (John Wood's) youngest brother, moves through the crowd; observing, watching his second brother George, Duke of Clarence (Nigel Hawthorne) being quietly led off by Tower warden Brackenbury (Donald Sumpter) and his subalterns. With Clarence gone, Richard seizes the microphone, its discordant screech cutting through the singer's applause, and he, who himself made this night possible by killing King Henry VI of Lancaster and his son at Tewkesbury, begins a victory speech: "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York" (cut to Edward, who regally acknowledges the tribute). But when Richard mentions "grim-visaged war," who "smooth'd his wrinkled front," the camera closes in on his mouth, turning it into a grimace reminiscent of the legend known to any spectator in Shakespeare's Globe Theatre: that he wasn't just born "with his feet first" but also "with teeth in his mouth;" hence, not only crippled (though whether also hunchbacked is uncertain) but cursed from birth, his physical deformity merely outwardly representing his inner evil.
Then, mid-sentence, the image cuts again. Richard enters a bathroom; and as he continues his monologue we see that only now, relieving himself and talking - with narcissistic pleasure - to his own image in the mirror, he truly speaks his mind; contemptuously dismissing a war that's lost its menace and "capers nimbly in a lady's bedchamber," and determining that, since he now has no delight but to mock his own deformed shadow, and "cannot prove a lover," he'll "prove a villain and hate the idle pleasures of these days."
Thus, Richard's first soliloquy, which actually opens the play on a London street, brilliantly demonstrates the signature elements of this movie's (and the preceding stage production's) success: not only its updated 20th century context but its creative use of settings and imagery; boldly cutting and rearranging Shakespeare's words without anytime, however, betraying his intent. Indeed, that pattern is already set with the prologue's murder of King Henry VI and his son, where following a telegraph report that "Richard of Gloucester is at hand - he holds his course toward Tewkesbury" (slightly altered lines from the preceding "King Henry VI"'s last scenes) Richard himself emerges from a tank breaking through the royal headquarters' wall, breathing heavily through a gas mask: As his shots ring out, riddling the prince with bullets, the blood-red letters R-I-C-H-A-R-D-III appear across the screen.
And as creatively it continues: Richard woos Lady Anne (Kristin Scott Thomas), Henry's daughter-in-law, in a morgue instead of a street (near her husband's casket), and later drives her into drug abuse. Henry's Cassandra-like widow Margaret is one of several characters omitted entirely; whereas foreign-born Queen Elizabeth is purposely cast with an American (Annette Benning), whose performance has equally purposeful overtones of Wallis Simpson; and whose playboy-brother Earl Rivers (Robert Downey Jr.) dies "in the act." Clarence is murdered while the rest of the family sits down to a lavish (although discordant) dinner. When upon Richard's ally Lord Buckingham's (Jim Broadbent's) machinations, he is "persuaded" to take the crown, he emerges from a veritable film star's dressing room complete with full-sized mirror and manicurists (sold to the attending crowd outside as "two deep divines" praying with him). Tyrrell (Adrian Dunbar), already one of Clarence's murderers, quickly rises through uniformed ranks as he further bloodies his hands. Richard's and Elizabeth's final spar over her daughter's hand takes place in the train-wagon serving as his field headquarters; and we actually see that same princess wed to his arch-enemy Richmond (Dominic West), King Henry VII-to-be and founder of the Tudor dynasty, with lines taken from Richmond's closing monologue. Perhaps most importantly, we also witness Richard's coronation, which Shakespeare himself - honoring that ceremony's perception as holy - decided not to show; although even here it is presented not as a glorious procedure of state but only in a brief snippet rerun immediately from the distance of a private, black-and-white film shown only for Richard's and his entourage's benefit.
And challenging as this project is, its stellar cast - also including Maggie Smith (a formidable Duchess of York), Jim Carter (Prime Minister Lord Hastings), Roger Hammond (the Archbishop), and Tim McInnerny and Bill Paterson (Richard's underlings Catesby and Ratcliffe) - uniformly prove themselves more than up to the task.
Even if the temporal setting didn't already spell out the allegory on the universality of evil that McKellen and director Richard Loncraine obviously intend, you'd have to be blind to miss the visual references to fascism: the uniforms, the gathering modeled on the infamous Nuremberg Reichsparteitag, the long red banners with a black boar in a white circle (playing up the image of the boar Shakespeare himself uses: similarly, Richard's and Tyrrell's first meeting is set in a pig-sty, and Lord Stanley's [Edward Hardwicke's] prophetic dream follows an incident where Richard, for a split-second, loses his self-control). But the imagery goes even further: Richard's narcissism is reminiscent of Chaplin's "Great Dictator;" and you don't have to watch this movie contemporaneously with the latest "Star Wars" installment to visualize Darth Vader during his gas mask-endowed entry in the first scene.
"[T]hus I clothe my naked villany with odd old ends stol'n out of holy writ; and seem a saint when most I play the devil," Richard comments in the play: if there's one line I regret to see cut it's the one so clearly encompassing the way many a modern despot assumes power, too; by cloaking his true intent in the veneer of formal legality. Even so: this is a highlight among the recent Shakespeare adaptations; under no circumstances to be missed.
The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works 2nd Edition
Olivier's Shakespeare - Criterion Collection (Hamlet / Henry V / Richard III)
BBC Shakespeare Histories (Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, Henry V, Richard II, Richard III) DVD Giftbox
BBC Shakespeare Tragedies DVD Giftbox
William Shakespeare's Hamlet (Two-Disc Special Edition)
Grigori Kozintsev's Hamlet
Peter Brook's King Lear
20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
Ian McKellan played Richard III on the stage in London, then touring the world, under Richard Eyre's direction and the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain's auspices. Like many great productions of Richard III in the past, there was an anticlimactic sense about things when the lengthy run ended - McKellan compares his production (justifiably) to those of Henry Irving and David Garrick, but longs for the lasting legacy of Laurence Olivier, who translated his successful stage production into a lasting cinematic production. Richard Eyre issued the challenge to McKellan to produce a screenplay, which he did, in collaboration with Richard Loncraine. Loncraine then produced the film, again starring Ian McKellan as Richard III, updated into a National-Socialist timeframe.
It is true that Shakespeare is the 'author' of Richard III - of course, much of Shakespeare's authoring involved heavy borrowing, redaction and crafting. This is not to take anything away from Shakespeare's achievement, but rather to prove the adage 'good writers borrow from others; great writers steal from them outright'. However, every production of a Shakespeare play requires modification of some sort; bringing Shakespeare productions to the screen (indeed, bringing any stage-play to the screen) requires a recrafting to suit the medium. McKellan and Loncraine rearranged and edited expertly the play to suit a film.
Richard III has been an enigmatic and controversial character - Shakespeare's play is probably more in keeping with Tudor propaganda against Richard III (from whom they took the throne) rather than actual history; Richard's malformed physical form and malicious character may be fictions, or at least great exaggerations, designed to serve the purpose of bolstering Tudor legitimacy. McKellan points out (a theory not unique to him, by any means) that the Tudors had as much to gain from the disappearance of the princes in the tower as Richard himself; had they survived and been recognised as heirs of the throne, Tudor legitimacy would have been much less credible.
McKellan's Richard has disability physically, but the real deformity is of the will and the spirit. The Prussian-inspired military garb of this production hints at but also hides his physical disability for the most part. There is no real hump, stammer or limp that many portrayals of Richard might have.
McKellan describes the decision to update the tale of Richard III into more modern times as one to provide clarity of narrative. Indeed, for this production, Richard is seen as a storm-trooper similar to the militant cadres of Germany in the 1930; his grasp for power is very similar in tone to the rise to dictatorship of any number of fascist leaders, but the Nuremberg-Rally character of Richard's accession leaves little doubt as to the parallel. On stage and screen, in a drama such as these, people need to be readily identified in their roles; Elizabethan dress (or earlier dress) is confusing to the modern eye, but the difference between costuming for military, aristocracy, etc. in the modern time is readily identifiable. The exact historical situation is not directly relevant - given that Richard III already takes liberties with the actual history of the time, why not take more in the name of accessibility to the audience?
Richard III had to be cut to make it on the screen, in order to be turned into a visual rather than auditory experience, given the sensibilities of modern cinema-goers. McKellan and Loncraine originally wanted to film around the Houses of Parliament, but for various political reasons that idea was quashed. They used the Parliament building in Budapest, modeled after the Westminster building, and did so to great effect.
McKellan certainly steals the show here, but there are worthwhile briefer performances by the late Nigel Hawthorne, Robert Downey Jr., John Wood, and Annette Bening. Maggie Smith, as the mother of Edward IV and Richard III, turns in a stunning performance as usual, nearly upstaging the other actors in every scene in which she appears.
The music is serviceable, useful as a backdrop but never really stands out. This is appropriate to Shakespeare, even up-dated, 'postmodern' Shakespeare, in which the play's the thing. The visuals help to pull the story along, but in true Shakepearean mode, the dialogue and acting are the driving forces here, and they succeed brilliantly.
47 of 55 people found the following review helpful
Every since Orson Welles and John Houseman started the trend of updating Shakespeare, there have been several innovative interpretations of the Bard. More so that the drug lord culture of 1996's "William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet," this 1995 version of "Richard III" cast in Edwardian England is a successful addition to the tradition. Of course it has one big advantage over other such films in that it is based on the captivating stage production by Ian McKellen and Richard Eyre. Certainly McKellen is totally comfortable in his role, adding a 20th century venire of evil to the calculating Duke of Gloucster on his way to the crown. This Richard is readily accessible to a contemporary audience.
But there is one extremely important caveat to enjoying this film: you have to be familiar with the original play, otherwise you will totally lose the irony of the alterations. For example, in the play Richard woos his intended bride as she follows the casket containing her husband, who had been slain by Richard, who at one point ponders whether a woman had ever been wooed let alone won in such a manner. In the film version the scene takes place in a morgue, with the dead husband lying on the gurney. The scene is gruesome, something you would expect in a splatter flick rather than Shakespeare, but has a certain validity given the original scene. It is, after all, just a question of setting. But if you are not well versed in "Richard III," you simply can not appreciate the McKellen version.
Of course, this is a marvelous opportunity for teachers who can screen the film, or key scenes, after students have read the play. Imagine the discussions you can have on the range and validity of interpretation available. You can do the same sort of thing with "MacBeth"/"Throne of Blood," "King Lear"/"Ran," or the Olivier/Branagh versions of "Henry V." Or you can just enjoy this film at home and mull over such wonders on your own.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
This is director Richard Loncraine's and Ian McKellan's take on Richard III, and it's brilliant. The setting is England in the 1930's, all art deco color and style, and moral decay. Edward IV has beaten his Lancastrian enemies with the ruthless generalship of his younger brother, Richard, and now runs Britain as a fascist state. The Yorkists have triumphed. Things seem under control, but Edward is sick...and Richard has ambitions. If Edward dies, then between Richard and the throne are their brother, George, and Edward's two young sons.
McKellan brings malevolent good humor, wonderful charm and mesmerizing treachery to the role. One of the funniest scenes is at the start. The battles have been won and Edward is hosting a great ball. Here McKellan starts the "Now is the winter of our discontent" remarks. Unlike Olivier's version, where he speaks to the camera and brings the audience into his schemes at the start, McKellan places the speech as a toast of honor to Edward, with the continuation, "made glorious summer by this sun [son] of York," referring syncophantly directly to Edward. But then Richard excuses himself, limps down to the gents, and continues while using the urinals and now talking to us. The whole thing is funny and grotesque. It's impossible to think of Olivier trying this.
There's also a Thirties-style swinging pop song sung at the ball that's set to Christopher Marlowe's words. It's a great song and helps set the mood.
For anyone put off by Shakespeare, this movie would be an easy way to get interested. It moves quickly, the period setting is comprehensible, and there are drownings, impalings, smotherings and beheadings. And the film is witty. When Richard cries out, "My kingdom for a horse," it's because his tanks and armored cars are being blown up.
The acting is exceptional; McKellan is extraordinary. Jim Broadbent does a great job as the sly, unprincipled Duke of Buckingham. After Edward dies (earlier Richard had dispossed of George), Richard takes the crown. Buckingham hesitates, finally, to act on Richard's hints that the two princes are awkward to have around. Instead, he asks Richard for the wealth and lands he was promised in exchange for giving Richard support. When Richard replies, "I'm not in a giving vein," Broadbent just through a subtle facial expression let's us see that the relationship has been fatally compromised, with the emphasis on fatal.
This is a superb, funny, malicious version of the play.
One caveat: The real Richard of Gloucester, who died fighting to defend his crown as Richard III, was evidently a good man, a better than average king, and didn't have a hunchback or a pronounced limp. He was the recipient, after his death, of an unrelenting hatchet job by those kissing up to Henry VII, who defeated him, and the other Tudors. Among the most noteworthy of those smearing Richard was William Shakespeare
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on April 15, 2002
Richard III was one of Shakespeare's first plays and as a result is not nuanced as his later works. The play tends to be too melodramatic for modern audiences so Ian McKellen and the talented cast of this film deserve full kudos for making the play and its characters both relevant and believeable. Ian McKellen deserves special honors for his portrayal of Richard III as both ruthless and oddly sympathetic. We can't help, but wonder, for example, if Richard's lust for power isn't the result of the lack of affection from his mother. The actor who played Buckingham was well-cast--talk about the "banality of evil". Kristin Scott Thomas gives a very fine performance as the tragic Lady Anne. Her portrayal of Anne as a woman who turns to drugs to escape her unhappy marriage gave the character a lot of motivation for her actions that is missing in the play. One of the things that is mentioned in the play, but really comes across on screen is the inability of the women, in a world when matters of life and death are decided by men, to protect their loved ones. Elizabeth Woodville (Annette Bening) is a devoted mother, but she is helpless to prevent the imprisonment and assassination of her two young sons. Robert Downing, Jr., by the way, does a nice turn as Elizabeth's good-natured, but dissolute brother, Rivers. The only thing I missed from the film was the mention of Owen Tudor which occurs at the end of the play. Tudor is a minor but important character because the irony of the whole play--the civil war, the in-fighting between families--is that a complete outsider (Owen) will eventually triumph and found the Tudor dynasty.
16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on August 7, 2004
Three stars for courage. But, for me, it didn't work. Shakespeare's play is cut to the bone. The struggle to find adequate 1930s parallels to the extreme convolutions of the Wars of the Roses (all concerned with hereditary power), and the rise and fall of the Bard's version of Richard Crookback, is just too much. There is certainly a tendency, in general, for history to repeat itself, but attempting to combine Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Stalin, Oswald Mosley (for all of whom hereditary power was completely irrelevant), and the Duke of Windsor, into the mythical figure of Richard of Gloucester, is misguided, to say the least. Much of the point of the play lies in the fact that Richard was systematically murdering his nearest family members. This resembles the modern Middle East far more than pre-World War II Europe. Incidentally, the setting is NOT Nazi Germany, Edwardian England, nor WWI, nor did the actual historical events take place only "a hundred years earlier", as one reviewer seems to think. Much of the film was shot inside and outside the Brighton Pavilion --- hardly Art Deco! Another major objection to this production and its version of the original script (which was not "a novel"!) is that it appears to be driven by a desire to be as unlike Olivier's stunning interpretation as it possibly could. In fact, it is haunted by Olivier's film, in a highly negative way: this counterpoint motivation destroys its integrity, since it is not basing its thrust on the words Shakespeare wrote. I just couldn't take the sight of McKellen sitting in a jeep, and bawling out: "My kingdom for a horse!" One reviewer has pointed out that Richard's seduction of the Lady Anne is probably the most impossible scene that Bill ever penned. Yet Olivier, because he makes Richard so incredibly fascinating, repulsive and compelling, and almost understandable and pathetic at the same time, delivers it in a manner that will probably never be equalled for theatrical bravado. McKellen is simply repellent, and the seduction couldn't be less convincing. The psychology of Richard's bitterness at his physical malformation --- "sent into this breathing world scarce half made up" --- is not sufficiently stressed by McKellen, so he cannot elicit any sympathy for his villainy from the audience. The idea that the characters smoke so much in order to symbolise the fogginess of their words is interesting. However, in any film from the 30s and 40s, with a contemporary setting, the characters smoke practically all the time. In fact, King George VI, as decent a king as ever lived, died from lung cancer brought on by cigarettes. As another perceptive reviewer remarked, the intensity of the design of the costumes and settings, while extremely impressive, tended to overwhelm everything else on the screen. As noted, that seems to be the dominant trend in most film-making these days. All design and very little substance. In fact the complete opposite of any Shakespeare play, where the plot and the words are everything, and the scenery is completely irrelevant. The only modern film-maker who manages to combine brilliant dialogue with matching sets is Tarantino: he actually writes like Shakespeare. It's blank verse, not prose.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on October 4, 2000
Although I'm a film devotee, and love Shakespeare on the stage, film versions of his plays usually bore me to tears -- but not this one! To begin with the centerpiece of the movie, Ian McKellan's performance is magnetic, magnificent, and thoroughly engaging. He doesn't overplay Richard's physical disability, and despite his unprepossessing appearance, he can be almost appealing when he wants to be. It's a portrayal you won't easily forget.
The rest of the cast -- with a single exception -- is almost his equal. Jim Broadbent beautifully underplays the shallow, traitorous Buckingham. Maggie Smith's few scenes are powerful and heartbreaking. Annette Bening more than holds her own -- you get the feeling that this woman is intelligent and persuasive, despite her countless travails. Adrian Dunbar in the small role of Tyrrell is slimily personable. Only Robert Downey Jr. is sadly miscast; he manages to butcher the language every time he opens his mouth (and I'm generally a fan of his work).
Too much has been made of the resetting of the play in an imaginary 1930's fascist England. With good actors and an imaginative director, Shakespeare works equally well in unconventional settings and traditional ones. I WILL say that Julie Taymor must have seen this film before embarking on her own "Titus". The similarities are remarkable, and I'm surprised that no one has commented on them (that film is also recommended, by the way).
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on October 20, 2000
In this version of Richard III the action has been movied to England in the 1930's. The move to this time period is flawless. While not as good as Titus (which is similar) this is a great film with fine performances. Maggie Smith as the Duchess of York steals this movie with her expert handling of Shakespeare. The scene she has with Ian McKellan (Richard III)by the stairs is amazing. Maggie Smith should have been a candidate for an Oscar for Best Supporting actress, a truly flawless performance. Annette Bening is very moving as Queen ELizabeth. Her best scene is in front of the building where her sons are being held prisoner by Richard. Krisitn Scott-THomas is riveting as Lady Anne. Ian McKellan is astouding as RIchard III. This is probably his best performance (even better than his performance as James Whale in "Gods and Monsters.") THe costumes and sets are also expertly done. Richard III is a near masterpeice.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on November 24, 2000
Generally speaking, I do not like it when people take the works of Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Dickens out of their times. But this is one time the content of the story did not really suffer too much. The script was for the most part left alone. Gloucester (later King Richard III) is captivating as the most demonic and evil character Shakespeare ever created. Just as when we read the play, we can easily be won to Richard III's side despite his evil. Maggie Smith demonstrates her mastery of Shakespeare as Richard's furious mother. As in the play, the action never stops. Despite the fact that much of the scenery is anachronistic, it is done well. My only real complaints are that they deleted the scene where Richard III is haunted by the 11 ghosts as well as King Henry VII's speech that ends the War of the Roses.