Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Violence and Sexuality
Directed by: Richard Loncraine
Written by: Ian McKellen & Richard Loncraine
(based on the play RICHARD III by William Shakespeare)
Starring: Ian McKellen, Annette Bening, Jim Broadbent, Robert Downey Jr., Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith, John Wood, Nigel Hawthorne, Adrian Dunbar, Edward Hardwicke, Tim McInnerny, Jim Carter & Dominic West
One of the common misconceptions about Shakespeare is that his plays are all old, dusty and can only be told in the same way every time. This is simply not true. The coolest thing about his material is most of it remains relevant (in one way or another) and the stories are phenomenal. There are many different ways that his work can be interpreted and this has been seen in plenty of unique takes on the bard’s tales. Shakespeare’s history plays were very much in the same vein as “based on a true story” movies are today. RICHARD III introduces one of Shakespeare’s best villains ever and this 1995 movie interpretation has Ian McKellen in the title role. As if that weren’t enough, the location has been shifted to 1930’s Britain and Richard III resembles a sort of Hitler archetype. A little creativity goes a long way.
It is the calm after war, during which Richard III was a killing machine and admired by his family for it. Now that peace has come, he’s reviled by most. Being physically repulsive (hunchbacked and a deformed hand) and so ugly that dogs bark at his appearance, Richard III takes it upon himself to become the villain. He’s hatched many plans to turn one family member against the other and wipe them all out. With the help of his slimy associates (mainly, the Duke of Buckingham), Richard III is literally executing his way into the top position of king. As we’ve seen with folks like this (in both actual history and Shakespeare’s plays), things don’t exactly work out for them in the end.
The fourth wall was less omnipresent when plays were being performed on stage with little to no props, in daylight, featuring men cross dressing as female characters. All that the audience of the 1500s wanted to see was a good story that would entertain them, hence the reason that Richard III is such an obvious villain here. He was not well-liked by the people and Shakespeare’s version of this king constantly breaks the fourth wall. Ian McKellen delights in using this to his full advantage, compete with winks and smirks. Richard is making us silently complicit with his horrible deeds. He’s the main character and the story completely follows him, so everyone else falls by the wayside as he parades around in his wicked glory. This doesn’t mean that the side performances aren’t good for what they’re worth. Annette Bening, Jim Broadbent, Robert Downey Jr., and Dominic West all deliver in their roles, whether they’re fighting Richard or aiding him.
The updated setting lends itself to a dark sense of humor, but things get downright grisly given that the main focus is a psycho slicing his way to the top. RICHARD III is actually Shakespeare’s third longest play, but this film edited down the not-so-vital pieces. The screenplay goes as far as shortening lengthier exchanges of dialogue, cutting scenes out and combining two characters into a single person. It’s an approach that works in transforming this into cinematic form. As much as I love the source material, it plays out better on the stage with a longer running time that risks becoming tedious on film. My problem (it’s sort of a big one) is that the conclusion feels a bit sudden. The film excitingly stretches a single sentence scene into an intense cat-and-mouse sequence. This being said, there’s not a hugely satisfying ending. I wanted an epilogue (which the play does have) in order to close events out in a better way. It’s not hugely detrimental flaw to the movie, but I noticed enough that some enjoyment was sucked out for me when the end credits began to roll.
RICHARD III is far more fun and brilliantly stylized than most of the traditional retellings of Shakespeare. That very style also negates the conclusion (feeling a tad off thanks to a missing final scene). Otherwise, the cutting, trimming and combining different scenes/characters works well in translating this into a film. It’s still very much Shakespeare, but a side that you may not have known from the man’s work. This should entertain fans of the source material, as well as possibly interest those who think Shakespeare is just for old farts. Highly recommended!