(United Kingdom & United States, 1995, 104 minutes, color, 35mm)
Shakespeare’s version of Richard III was a tyrant and a charismatic schemer, a man whom the desire for imperial power had turned into an ambitious murderer. He would kill those who stood in his way to the throne, kill those who disputed his rule, and kill those whose empires he decided were a threat to his own. His homicidal whims were transformed into state policy, and he spent his nation into bankruptcy with his enthusiastic war making. Dissenters gave up their voice, and much more, on the headsman's block at the Tower of London. Shakespeare willed us, in short, a very modern dictator.
This is just how director Richard Loncraine and star Ian McKellean envisioned Richard, as a man who would have been at home in the horrific golden age of modern dictators, when Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini left bloody footprints across the globe. It is the 1930's, and we are in a familiar-seeming but alternate England. Yet it is one that might very well have come to pass if native British Depression-era fascists like Oswald Mosley, who captained a black-shirted militia, had come to power in the same way Hitler had. Production designer Tony Burrough has recreated Britain between the wars to a fare-thee-well, from the British art deco designs associated with high society, to the imposing Victorian spaces associated with the democratic government that arose to contain the excesses of mad rulers like Richard. Cinematographer Peter Biziou's performance is one of the best in the film; he photographs these untimely spaces in striking, often expressionistic moments, and offers Richard's serial slaughterings of royal rivals in scenes of opulent violence.
By moving the play forward a few hundred years, Loncraine and McKellen (they wrote the screenplay together) open up imaginative opportunities for location staging. A power station becomes the Tower of London, and a steam train museum on Lancashine becomes part of the battle of Bosworth Field. Richard is now, like Hitler, a World War I veteran, chain smoking and exhorting the rabble. Squaring off against Richard at Court are a cadre of distingue royals right out of Noel Coward, led but never organized by Queen Elizabeth, played by Annette Bening.
In his own day, Shakespeare's history plays had been done in modern dress. Many of Shakespeare’s twentieth century exponents in the theater, most notoriously Orson Welles, have found in Shakespeare’s works eerie parables for modern fascism and criminality. (The recent independent film Scotland, PA burlesques this tradition, with its version of Macbeth concentrating on the bloody struggle for control of a family-style restaurant in a small Pennsylvania town in the 1970’s.) Loncraine follows in this tradition – he has said that he sought to "mesh the twentieth century imagery and the sixteenth century dialog."
Richard Loncraine is not the first film director to take on Shakespeare’s controversial play. (Controversial because his historians have argued that Richard was a radically different person than the monumental villain Shakespeare gives us.) Laurence Olivier’s 1955 Richard, the third in Olivier’s cinematic Shakespeare trilogy, forever cemented this image of killing cruelty and physical disability in the popular mind. The McKellen version cleverly attempts, not to contradict these assumptions, but to take them as givens, and improvise on them. McKellen has been involved with some of the most innovative films of recent years, and as a collaborator, he sought someone able to fully commit himself to a high concept interpretation. Loncraine had directed such uncategorizable films as Bellman and True and Brimstone and Treacle, disturbing and expressive dark comedies, and McKellen rightly believed that Loncraine would find the extravagant cinematic equivalents to the political updatings of their script.
Their adaptation has been, itself, controversial, less for its on-screen violence than for the violence Loncraine does to Shakespeare’s language. Many of the play’s scenes are cut or trimmed, and even some of the great speeches have been radically altered. (The "now is the winter of our discontent" speech, for instance, gets chopped in half; it is used as a public harangue, and then as a monologue in a men's room.) But McKellen makes Richard’s grandiose ego mesmerizing. He confides in us with such assuredness that we almost find ourselves dimly beginning to believe in his strange messiah complex, before we bring ourselves up short, suddenly aware of how a dictator could have compelled a nation and its stewards to fight for his unbalanced view of the world. And yet, for us, as for reviewer Kenneth Turan, McKellen’s Richard, for all his modern dress, is still recognizable as Shakespearean: "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.’
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
The following is taken from a Chicago Sun-Times review by Roger Ebert that appeared Jan. 19, 1996:
One of the most audacious proposals in all of literature occurs in Shakespeare's "Richard III," when the misshapen Richard, who has caused the death of King Henry VI, proposes to his widow, Anne, as she accompanies the corpse of her husband through the streets. Here Shakespeare was collapsing events separated in time, to underscore Richard's evil impudence. Of course, in the 15th century, royal marriages were more a matter of politics and strategy than of romance, and by the end of the scene, Anne is actually considering his proposal.
Now look at a small touch added to the scene by "Richard III," the new film by Richard Loncraine and Ian McKellen. Richard (McKellen) softens up Anne (Kristin Scott Thomas) with flattery, sophistry and lies, and finally offers her a ring, which she accepts. All very well. But in this version, he first removes the ring from his own finger by sticking it in his mouth and lubricating it with saliva, so that as he slips it on her finger, she cannot help feeling the spit of her husband's murderer.
That extra measure of repulsive detail scuttles through the entire film, making this "Richard III" not just a seductive telling of Shakespeare's story but also a perversely entertaining one…. The movie, based on a London stage production that also starred McKellen, advances the action 500 years, to the 1930s, while keeping Shakespeare's words. The first 10 minutes of the film set the stage almost without dialogue, as Richard shoots a rival and then addresses a political rally. When the famous opening lines arrive ("Now is the winter of our discontent"), we slip easily into the language. (More fiendishness: Richard begins his speech in public glory, and then concludes it in private, standing at a urinal, speaking directly to the camera, enlisting us in his scheme.)
The movie is set in the kind of England that might have resulted if Edward VIII, instead of abdicating, had been able to indulge his fascist fantasies, summon Oswald Mosley to lead a government and lead his people into an accommodation with Hitler. Much of the popular appeal of Nazism grew out of the costumes, settings and architecture of the Hitler cult, and in "Richard III," the men strut in black and red, in leather and tailored wool -- their politics an expression of their fetishes. Many of the scenes are placed inside and outside a vast 1930s Art Deco power station, which looks like the set for an Ayn Rand wet dream.
And they smoke constantly. Of course, everyone smoked in the 1930s, but the smoking behavior in "Richard III" is particular: Richard's consciousness in many scenes seems to center on his cigarette, which he returns to obsessively, as if through its tube he is inhaling the venom that enables him to carry on. All of the others smoke, too -- the women using cigarette holders and gloves to maintain a dainty distance between themselves and the poison they crave.
Richard's progress to the crown is hastened by a steady stream of murders, orchestrated with the aid of a couple of blank-faced hit men and the advice of the plump, sleek Buckingham (Jim Broadbent), who beams benignly over the slaughter and dreams of being paid off with a country estate….
Annette Bening plays Elizabeth solidly…. Maggie Smith is right at home; as Richard's mother and the grandmother of his victims, she curses him so venomously that even Richard has pause. [But] the movie is really McKellen's, and with director Loncraine, his co-writer, he comes up with one sly touch after another to make Richard a satisfactory villain. Given an apple to feed to a pig, he throws it at the animal and nods with quiet satisfaction at its squeal….
Traditional adaptations of Shakespeare [sometimes have a tendency to be] reverent, yet not filling. Now here is that bane of the purists, a modern-dress Shakespeare, which works in the way the play should work. Perhaps that is because the 1930s period and decor match the tone of the play; decadent royalty strutted on the European stage, having a last dance before the Nazi beast pounced.
The following is taken from a Denver Post interview by Howie Movshovitz that appeared Jan. 13, 1996:
I asked [Ian McKellen] if doing Shakespeare is different from working with the writing of others.
He smiled the way people do when they taste something unusually wonderful. "Mmmnh. Yes," he answered. "You know it when you do other people's work. There's no playwright so supportive to actors. There is within the plays all the information you need. And within the language - the rhythms, rhymes and metaphors - a whole world a thousand times bigger than what's being spoken about. He's elemental.
"For Shakespeare, the poetic is the essence of reality. It's not removed from reality. The breadth of his interest (and technique) is astounding. Shaw, for instance, basically uses the same tricks of grabbing the audience - irony, wit - over and over…." McKellen clasped his hands in excitement. "Poetry and reality are the same for Shakespeare. And it's warming for an actor that this great mind invented theater for his medium. He might have been an essayist, a composer or a painter. But what he liked was people getting together - a social world."
McKellen, 56, has been performing Shakespeare for more than 30 years. He loves it. When he talks about Shakespeare his eyes shine and he sounds as if he could go on forever. He's such a good and lively talker, listening to him well into the future would be just fine….
This version of "Richard III," directed by Richard Loncraine from a screenplay by Loncraine and McKellen, sets the action between the two world wars. Over the course of the play, Richard and his minions dress increasingly in black with uniforms like those of Hitler's SS, and the monumental art direction is right out of Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi-sponsored documentary "Triumph of the Will."
But McKellen offers no apologies for Shakespeare. He doesn't hype Shakespeare as a 16th- or 17th-century Steven Spielberg or any other current entertainer, and he's not trying to update Shakespeare's play into a palatable setting for our sensibilities. He wants to give us Shakespeare directly.
Adapting Shakespeare to the movie screen, he said, "depends on what your intentions are. If the intent is to update and pander to the fears that Shakespeare is above the audience, that he would do westerns now, then we'd have Richard looking just like Adolf Hitler. You can go down that track."….
"My approach is to do nothing that will get in the way of the audience appreciating what I appreciate, stripping away the unhelpful sense that Shakespeare, because he wrote 400 years ago, is difficult. As if we must apologize for Shakespeare."
To make "Richard III" roughly contemporary is what Shakespeare did. He set his plays in his time. As Chaucer made the ancient Greek and Trojan warriors into late medieval knights, Shakespeare turned Hamlet and Macbeth into men of the early 1600s. As McKellen said, "Shakespeare didn't make 'The Merchant of Venice,' he made 'The Merchant of London.'
"A critic said that 'Richard III' was not authentic. But Shakespeare did it all in modern dress. I just want to borrow fascism to show that Richard was not just a charismatic jolly villain. We have to take him seriously."….
The following is taken from an article by Mark Lawson that appeared in The Guardian (UK), April 19, 1996:
McKellen insists that the main alterations [in adapting "Richard III" for the screen] concern concept rather than text. He points out that, having performed the play 300 times before starting his script, he was perhaps more familiar with the source material than any previous screenwriter faced with a classic text.
'My job on the production was to stick up for Shakespeare. I was his agent. And, hand on heart, there is nothing on the screen that did not spring from the text or my understanding of it. But you have to keep asking yourself: will they understand it? Do they know what I'm talking about? That will affect the way I speak it. It will affect the way the characters are introduced, what they wear.' Because budget and fashion demanded a short film, McKellen's script took an axe to the structure of the text familiar to play-goers, but tried to use only a scalpel on those parts of the play that were retained. Because of the setting, the introduction and identification of some characters was changed, so that, for example, the 'Lord Chamberlain' becomes 'Prime Minister'. The main stylistic decision was that thees or thous would be removed and the line 'Cousin, thou wast not wont to be so dull' was altered to 'Buckingham, you never used to be so dull', because, in McKellen's view, 'wast' was too fustian and 'not wont' might be heard by modern popcorn-crunchers as a double negative.
The longest agonies concerned the soliloquies. 'I thought Richard could have a confidant he spoke to. Or he could be speaking to himself, gnawing away. But I don't believe people speak to themselves like that. Nor does Shakespeare. The soliloquies are direct communication with someone. It's part of Richard's need to tell people what is going on. [Film audiences] just have to go along with it, although it is worrying in cinema to break the convention of the fourth wall.'….
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