Hal Hinson - Style section,
A Modernized 'Richard III'
In this modernistic adaptation of Shakespeare's classic play, a
civil war in 1935 has divided England and enthroned Richard’s older
brother Edward. Richard plots to get the throne himself by
manipulations including: persuading the king to execute their brother
Clarence, thereby removing Richard's biggest obstacle to the throne;
murdering his two nephews; and arranging to marry his
A Rich 'Richard III' Rules
By Desson Howe
Thanks to a generation or two of "visionary" directors—both cinematic and theatrical—modern-motif gimmickry for classic plays has become a banality. I refer to such directorial treatments as, say, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" done in ancient Roman dress, or "Electra" recast as a drag opera. (Actually, I made that last one up, but it's probably been done somewhere.)
So, "Richard III," in which the hunchbacked, scheming monarch takes over the British realm in 1930s Nazi-esque attire, can hardly be considered shocking or risque. But it's directed wonderfully well by Richard Loncraine. The acting is rich and suitably expansive; and there are anachronistic juxtapositions to savor everywhere, as Shakespeare's royalist cloak-and-dagger drama is adapted to fit the dark political era between the 20th century's world wars.
After civil war has divided the nation and enthroned his older brother Edward (John Wood), Richard (Ian McKellen), plots to get the throne himself. Among his increasingly outrageous Machiavellian moves: persuading the king to execute their brother Clarence (Nigel Hawthorne, who played mad King George III), thereby removing Richard's biggest obstacle to the throne; murdering his two young nephews (more claimants to royalty); and arranging to marry his niece (Kristen Scott Thomas), thereby uniting the two political families of England.
Although Richard plays everyone magnificently against each other, the road to his ascension becomes over-littered with bodies. Eventually, his former, disgruntled ally Buckingham (Jim Broadbent) teams with the Earl of Richmond (Dominic West)—the future Henry VII—to save the kingdom at the Battle of Bosworth Field.
What's best about "Richard III" is what's best about most British Shakespeare productions. You can sit back and listen to performers who have been raised on Shakespeare. As Richard, McKellen is an inspired villain, a satanically charming cross between Peter O'Toole and Keith Richards. He's constantly pulling you into his schemes by directly addressing the camera. Like it or not, you are forced to become an accomplice.
The actors are uniformly good, including Broadbent's unctuous Buckingham and Hawthorne's sweet, unsuspecting Clarence. From the American side, Annette Bening and Robert Downey Jr., blend in well as the American-born Queen Elizabeth and her brother, Earl Rivers.
Speaking of anachronistic juxtapositions, I personally drew the line at Richard's famous declaration "My kingdom for a horse," as he sits in a marooned jeep, while bombs scream around him. It felt like a false note, a weakness disguised as provocative incongruence. But, considering all the atmospherics and larger-than-life performances that make this so enjoyable, this was a minor quibble.
RICHARD III (R) — Contains sexual situations and prolific, brutal murders.
'Richard III': Shakespeare, All Shook Up
By Hal Hinson
With its images of tanks plowing through library walls, its crowd-pleasing visual pyrotechnics, haute couture costumes and Disney World approach to historical spectacle, Richard Loncraine's "Richard III" is the "Jumanji" of Shakespeare movies. A wrenching transposition of the Bard's 15th-century story to a fictitious, fascist England of the 1930s, the film turns the play into a thrill-a-second fun house of murder, rude seduction and gory domestic violence that would peel the paint off the walls of "Geraldo's" studio.
Poetry? What poetry?
Loncraine doesn't simply find a modern setting for Shakespeare's original; he modernizes it to its marrow, dressing it up in Nazi chic and staging it like a rock opera. The basic story, however, is the same. With the civil war between the Yorks and the Lancasters suddenly at an end, Richard (Ian McKellen), the treacherous hunchbacked duke of Gloucester and brother of Edward (John Wood), the new king, has nothing better to do with his time than kill everyone in sight—starting with Edward. In the process, he hopes to gain the throne for himself.
But in McKellen's lethally flamboyant incarnation, Shakespeare's consummate villain, his devil in twisted flesh, isn't interested so much in the crown as in the merry thrill of plotting, double-crossing and conspiracy along the way.
Oh yes, and the killing.
Not surprisingly, the flashiest work is done by McKellen, who seems to have taken Edward's widow Elizabeth's description of Richard as a "bottled spider" for his inspiration. This spider, however, has only one arm; the other is withered and useless, a dead stump hanging from his deformed torso.
This doesn't deter him in the least from seducing Lady Anne (Kristin Scott-Thomas), the wife of his other brother, Clarence (Nigel Hawthorne), whom he also has murdered, or from killing Rivers (Robert Downey Jr.), the wastrel brother of Elizabeth (Annette Bening), or from slaughtering her two princely sons.
The theme, basically, is that bad boys just want to be bad. McKellen's Richard has a genius for evil; becoming king merely allows him to express it. He kills things, and he's good at it. It's what he does.
That fascism can be fun probably isn't the message that Loncraine—who along with McKellen adapted the movie from a stage production directed by Richard Eyre—meant to convey. But with McKellen having such a delicious time leering into the camera and hamming it up, it's hard to think otherwise. In a shamelessly entertaining display of acting brilliance, McKellen "plays" the demon's good arm as if it were a Stradivarius, executing one showy stunt after another.
During the film he opens his cigarette case and lights a smoke, uncorks wine bottles and wiggles into his gloves—all, ladies and gentlemen, with only one hand! The whole production—with those black shirts and neo-Third Reich designs—looks uncharacteristically zippy, as if Loncraine were trying to create the movie equivalent of a Shakespeare comic book. There's a whole crew of actors giving notable support of McKellen's Richard—among them Jim Broadbent's obsequious Buckingham and Maggie Smith's cyclonic Duchess of York. Ultimately, though, it's McKellen's florid mastery that dominates everything—even the author's words.
Richard III is rated R.