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The real historic Richard III was recently found hastily buried under a parking lot tarmac and re-interred with royal honors, an event followed by a historical re-evaluation that makes him out to be no more of a cutthroat than any other Plantagenet or Tudor royal of his day. New image or not, no PR campaign can shake our preference for the grand-dastardly S.O.B. dramatized by William Shakespeare, whose play is class-A historical/theatrical smear-job if ever there was one. Prestige Shakespeare film adaptations are usually initiated by enthusiastic talent, not movie studios, leaving us as the beneficiaries of productions by the likes of Laurence Olivier, Roman Polanski and Kenneth Branagh.
For about two years in the middle 1990s MGM's fortunes skyrocketed. It wasn't just the successful re-launch of the Bond franchise with GoldenEye: instead of dogs like Fled and Undercover Blues the studio put out quality titles and/or moneymakers like Get Shorty, The Birdcage, Rob Roy, Leaving Las Vegas and Species. Not a box office hit, 1995's Richard III has grown in stature thanks to the 'youth' popularity earned by actor Ian McKellen in X-Men and in the wake of the spectacular Lord of the Rings blockbusters. Teachers of Shakespeare should consider this a gift -- kids may indeed try The Bard on the dare that they'll see the Wizard Gandalf show what he really can do as an actor.
This version of Richard III is radical fun that honors the word and spirit of the original. McKellen and director Richard Loncraine teamed to adapt the play, putting together an exciting production that attracted an incredible array of talent. There isn't a bum bit of casting to be seen, even the 'stunt' casting of Robert Downey Jr.. A couple of characters are eliminated and others expanded, while the play overall is shorn of half its verbiage. Yet the tale of the crookback villain is better than ever.
At the conclusion of a punishing civil war in the 1930s, a mythical Fascist monarchy rules England. Richard III (Ian McKellen) has overcome a deformed back and arm and proved himself an effective soldier. Richard now covets the crown of King Edward (John Wood), but is far back in the line of succession. He determines to achieve his goal through dishonesty, deception, and outright murder. The first step is to marry Lady Anne (Kristin Scott Thomas), the widow of his opponent in combat. Hiring the thug James Tyrell (Adrian Dunbar) to do his dirty work, and with the backing of the greedy Duke of Buckingham (Jim Broadbent) he cleaves a path through the bloodlines by turning various royals against one another and imprisoning his trusting brother, the Duke of Clarence (Nigel Hawthorne). Richard must also do something about the American branch of the family: Edward's Queen Elizabeth (Annette Bening), her brother Lord Rivers (Robert Downey Jr.) and her two sons. Nobody seems capable of stopping Richard, not even his mother the Duchess of York (Maggie Smith), who so is so full of hate that she calls him a toad to his face. When Richard succeeds in stealing the Kingship, the Duchess and Elizabeth have no choice but to change sides, and support the Earl of Richmond (Dominic West) in a bid for rebellion.
What can I say? Shakespeare's play, so difficult for this reader to understand in print, comes fully to life when dramatized as a display of royal treachery. This show has more killings than the average Dario Argento movie. The setting is fascinating. Faster than you can say George Orwell, Philip K. Dick or Kevin Brownlow, we're thrust into a negative-subjunctive fascist England between the wars. It's as if, instead of abdicating, Edward VIII married American Wallis Simpson and reshaped the country along Nazi lines. It happens differently in Richard III, of course, but the spirit is there, right down to the privileged royal family luxuriating in fine clothes and swank automobiles. The film captures the sleek art deco fantasy of the élites of that time. The only movie I've seen capture that is Alain Resnais' Stavisky..., where the fashion plate Anny Duperey poses on a hotel terrace with a sexy French auto. 1
When the ruling family of York convenes for a victory ball, Richard opens with the keynote speech, "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer..." A ballroom band plays a smooth love ballad with hot lyrics lifted from Christopher Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to his Love", written in 1599: "Come Live With Me and Be My Love." This odd fantasy England is firmly established in just a minute or two.
The film is of course a showcase for Ian McKellen, whose Richard derives endless joy from miserable villainy. Richard's idea of relaxation is to lie back and peruse morgue photos of his victims. Forvever shooting asides to the camera, Richard is our close confidante. Seething with hatred and anger and plotting murders left and right, he composes himself to play the humble innocent. McKellen's Richard does appear to understand human nature. He woos Lady Anne right over the body of her dead husband, and pre-empts his enemies by claiming he's the victim and not the aggressor. Of course it's exaggerated, but an awful lot of history is just as treacherously bloody, whenever a despot is after power or trying to consolidate it.
It's a treat to see actors Downey Jr. and Annette Bening holding their own with the likes of Maggie Smith. Standouts are Nigel Hawthorne's gentle Clarence and Jim Broadbent's foolish Buckingham. Adrian Dunbar turns a 'henchman' part into a central character. Kristin Scott Thomas's Lady Anne soon takes a swan dive into heavy drug use, an understandable choice considering whom she married. Richard chooses his allies well, and knows exactly when to betray them.
Richard Loncraine's direction is masterful. The camera goes for the drama but also adds its own conspiratorial dash of vigor. There's no chance to get bogged down in speeches, as most scenes end on wickedly arch lines, before cutting to a new and interesting setting. The production gives us a procession of elegant halls, great houses and public buildings. A giant abandoned power station becomes the site of a concluding battle. The Tower of London looks like a monstrous Orwellian Ministry of Fear, waiting across the Thames when Clarence is taken under arrest. After Richard is crowned he appears in a military uniform very much like that of a Nazi officer. His flags imitate Nazi regalia with a boar's head in place of a swastika. A public speech is a pro-Richard mass rally. Every design detail is carefully chosen. Clarence's prison exercise break is granted in a space that looks like the inside of a reactor's cooling tower, a depressing concrete circle surrounded by a fetid moat. When someone flees to safety we see a vintage Biplane that for a moment looks too 'deco' to be real. But it is.
Best of all is the nimble, knowing camera direction that allows Richard to take part in a scene, and then break the fourth wall to share his sadistic glee with the audience. These are done so well that they never seem merely clever or hammy... Richard is first and foremost a really scary guy.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Richard III is a terrific presentation of a film that few saw in theaters. It was released when I was working for MGM Home Video and wasn't even given an employee screening. Most of us saw it in diminished circumstances, pan-scanned on VHS or cable TV. In HD resolution we can appreciate the lavish production values, especially for a picture that reportedly cost less than $6 million. That cast must have worked for next to nothing.
A big plus for cultural Philistines like myself are the English subtitles. The ability to read the florid prose breaks the ignorance barrier, allowing me to understand and enjoy this story to the fullest. I should think many potential viewers out there would be in the same situation. Those better versed in The Bard can catch the fun without working so hard.
Twilight Time's Isolated Music and Effects track gives us unobstructed access to Trevor Jones' mellow, '30s-flavored music. His song of the Marlowe poem is crooned on screen to good effect by Stacey Kent. The original trailer is also present. Julie Kirgo offers a set of smart program notes, reaching into the history of Shakespeare adaptations -- this one attempts the usurp the crown from Laurence Olivier's 1955 VistaVision version -- and marveling at the once-in-a-lifetime selection of actors eager to work with Ian McKellen.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Richard III Blu-ray rates:
1. Stavisky... -- now there's a good movie that's dropped out of sight. We want it back, along with Resnais' Providence.
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T'was Ever Thus.