Richard III (1995)

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*. An hour and a forty-four minutes. That’s impressive. Richard III is a long play (second longest in the Shakespearean canon, after Hamlet) and they had to cut half of it out. They even got rid of the ghosts!
*. The cuts, however, are no great loss. Richard III isn’t a fun play to read as it’s thick with a lot of impossible-to-follow historical (or pseudohistorical) detail, dull rhetoric, and unnecessary characters. It has, however, always been popular on stage and screen because of the magnetic character of Richard, the villain-hero who enjoys being bad. So keep the grinning soliloquies and the general House of Cards atmosphere (the original 1990 BBC television series, itself a re-imagining of Richard III), but lose the stichomythia.

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*. In theory, casting the American actors Annette Bening and Robert Downey, Jr. as representatives of the Woodville clan (Queen Elizabeth and Earl Rivers) makes perfect sense. Being American cousins even helps explain the accents. But Bening just barely holds her own in what should be a stronger part and Downey . . . should not do Shakespeare.
*. Not that the casting makes much of a difference. Richard III has always been a one-man show, and it is again here with Ian McKellen giving a standout performance. How can his interpretation be characterized? He doesn’t have a scrap of sexuality, unlike Olivier’s Byronic version, but he can still seduce. Instead of sexual magnetism he charms with lively pathos. He does have an authentic martial air and can create the (false) impression of someone who would like to be better than he is. This works because like most such figures you can understand why he despises the people he fools so much: their sympathy has made them into his enablers.
*. Not that he’s entirely asexual. When he’s having his arm massaged the shot is introduced in such a way that it looks like he’s receiving sexual favours. And while looking at pictures of the dead Hastings’ corpse he might almost be masturbating.

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*. A telegraph, and then a tank crashing through a wall of books. Surely a Collected Works of Shakespeare was in there somewhere. This lets us know we aren’t in the 1400s any more.
*. I think on the whole the 1930s setting works very well at least in terms of the look of the film. The Cyclopean locations (a couple of deserted power stations, including the iconic Battersea) and Masterpiece Theatre costumes actually complement each other. The Nazi angle though is a bit trite. I guess it helps to reach a mass audience with all the old familiar imagery, but the historical parallels aren’t there. Though Olivier apparently wanted his Richard to remind us of Hitler.
*. There are other bits thrown in for the mass audience that I didn’t care for. Did we need to see Richard made over into a wild boar? That’s exactly the kind of thing that I don’t want to see; actors should be left to do their own thing without the aid of such crazy prosthetics.
*. The other scrap thrown in for popular tastes is the murder of Rivers. Now obviously Shakespeare had no problem with special gory effects. See Titus Andronicus. But the old stabbed-from-under-the-bed trick, a staple of slasher cinema going back to Friday the 13th and laughably unrealistic, just seems out of place here.

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*. I like Richard’s laughter as he falls into the flames of hell. He had fun playing the game, and if he didn’t win at the end, well, at least he got to go out with a bang. But what of Richmond’s smile? In the play he’s less a character than an embodiment of divine providence, putting an end to the Wars of the Roses and inaugurating the Tudor dynasty. We’re spared his final address (“Now civil wounds are stopp’d; peace lives again.”) but given something in a quite different spirit. Richard recognizes in him a kindred spirit and passes him the baton, suggesting that Henry VII is going to be no better. Or perhaps McKellen makes his exit with thoughts of the all the money he was soon going to make playing Magneto. Meanwhile, Dominic West (in his first feature film) may have been thinking of The Wire. They both had something to smile about.

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6 thoughts on “Richard III (1995)

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