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.
Also recommended:The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works 2nd EditionOlivier'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 GiftboxBBC Shakespeare Tragedies DVD GiftboxHenry VWilliam Shakespeare's Hamlet (Two-Disc Special Edition)Grigori Kozintsev's HamletHamletPeter Brook's King LearJulius Caesar