Richard of Gloucester is one of Shakespeare's most magnificent monsters and "Richard III" is a film audacious enough to match his astonishing villainy. Made with gusto, daring and visual brilliance, this stripped-down, jazzed-up "Richard" pulsates with bloody life, a triumph of both modernization and popularization.
Shakespeare's plays have been subjected to numerous interpretations, so many that when the Folger Shakespeare Filmography was published in 1979, it took 64 pages to list every one. There have been traditional versions, total updates like 1955's unlikely "Joe Macbeth," even films whose Shakespearean source was cleverly hidden, as was science-fiction classic "Forbidden Planet's" use of "The Tempest."
But while it's not uncommon on stage, what director Richard Loncraine and star Ian McKellen (who also collaborated on the screenplay) have done is rare on screen. They've kept to the spirit of Shakespeare's words (though the play is much-abridged here) but switched the setting from the 15th century to England of the 1930s. In the process they've liberated the same kind of energy that Akira Kurosawa did when he moved "Macbeth" to medieval Japan and came up with the magnificent "Throne of Blood."
McKellen toured extensively with the stage version of this production, but since film is a more realistic medium he and Loncraine (with splendid help from cinematographer Peter Biziou, production designer Tony Burrough and costume designer Shuna Harwood) have been able to create a convincing cinematic universe to house it in.
The setting is in effect an alternate England, what the country might have looked like in the 1930s if there'd been a civil war and motorcycle-riding black-shirted fascists (the followers of Sir Oswald Mosley, perhaps) had taken over the government and the monarchy. With inventive use of arresting locations and attention to period details like ticker tapes, cigarette holders and big-band music, "Richard" creates an unsettling crooked copy of those days, not a gimmick, but a breathing, functioning reality.
Employing this eye-catching look has also freed up the filmmakers to creatively re-imagine every aspect of the play's plot line, like placing Richard's celebrated wooing of Lady Anne, the woman whose husband he's just killed, in a bloody and claustrophobic hospital morgue.
In addition to splitting Richard's initial "now is the winter of our discontent" speech into two parts, a public address and a private monologue delivered in a men's room, the film brazenly postpones it for 10 minutes, opening things instead with a literally smashing sequence of Richard at war that lets you know at once that this isn't going to be Shakespeare as usual.
While these pyrotechnics could compensate for a good deal of bad acting, in "Richard III" they don't have to. The title role has always attracted the best of actors (Sir Laurence Olivier did it on film, George C. Scott had his first major New York stage success with the part and Al Pacino will have a version at the Sundance Film Festival), but even in this group McKellen's delicious version is special.
Insinuator, instigator, a matchless deployer of nets and traps, McKellen's smirking Richard is master of oily dissimulation. With his awkward hump and withered arm, he is at once the scuttling apparition that dogs bark at and everyone's concerned false friend, "too childish, foolish for this world."
It's part of McKellen's gift to make it seem that Richard is taking the audience into his confidence via his monologues because his contemporaries are too dense to be appreciative and he has to share his consummate villainy with someone. Richard first describes and then shows how he'll woo Anne and coolly eliminate anyone who stands between him and the throne, including his two brothers, one of them Edward IV, the current monarch.
Supporting McKellen in this masterly performance are some of Britain's best actors, including Kristin Scott Thomas as the Lady Anne, Nigel Hawthorne and John Wood as Richard's brothers, Maggie Smith as their mother, the Duchess of York, and Jim Broadbent as the duplicitous Buckingham.
Not only are these players in exceptionally good form, they've made a conscious attempt to avoid declaiming, to speak Shakespeare's dialogue as if it were casual and conversational, which successfully makes the words sound as modern as possible.
The one place the casting has gone slightly astray is in using two Americans, Annette Bening and especially Robert Downey Jr., as Edward's Queen Elizabeth and her brother Earl Rivers. Though the filmmakers defend these seemingly commercial choices by saying the original two were outsiders at Edward's court (being members of the rival house of Lancaster), there is something unnecessarily jarring about hearing their domestic accents, though Bening, to her credit, does handle the role with assurance and authority.