As this film is based on an over-400-year-old play (itself based on even older history), the events and characters of which are pretty much embedded into Western cultural history, I trust that the usual rules of ‘spoilers’ don’t really apply in the same way. However, if you remain concerned about this, then I shall sum up my review more pithily: track down this movie and watch it. It’s worth it, even if you think you don’t like Shakespeare.
I first saw this film on the big screen a few years after it was released, which is to say, 16 years ago now. My memory is generally terrible, and there are films I’ve seen that I have forgotten to such an extent that I’ve rewatched them and not even realised that I’d seen them already in my life. So it should say something that I still very clearly recalled the opening sequence of this adaptation of the Shakespeare play when I sat down to rewatch it recently at home.
The setting is 1930s England, and the credits sequence puts us in a military command centre, through whose wall crashes a tank. From it emerges Richard of York (played by Ian McKellen) in a gas mask to put a bullet through the head of his foe, allowing his family to seize power. This effectively is the background to the events of the original Shakespeare play — wherein Richard gets rid of his older brothers in order to take the crown for himself — and the film’s early scenes mix up speeches from both Richard III as well as the underrated play that precedes it, Henry VI Part 3.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of this adaptation is the setting, which recontextualises famous British locations which are (largely) contemporaneous to the period, in sometimes surprising ways. For example, the grimly overpowering Bankside Power Station (now Tate Modern), with its looming central tower, is a wartime prison (taking the place of the play’s Tower of London), while another London power station (that in Battersea) is reimagined as a coastal fortress. Meanwhile, the imposing totalitarian bulk of the Art Deco Senate House — famous for being earmarked by Hitler as the site of his London headquarters — is used for its grand marble-clad halls, perhaps in the way that Hitler might have intended. Indeed, this link to the fascist regime of the Nazis extends also to the costume design with Richard’s black uniforms, not to mention entire scenes like the political rally being lifted from Riefenstahl’s Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will, 1935).
Of course, all this care given to the look of the film would be nothing if the acting wasn’t able to deal with Shakespeare’s poetry adequately, but even a cursory glance at the cast list is enough to lay any such qualms to rest. It’s practically a who’s who of British acting talent, adding a few names that would only come to prominence some years later (such as a young Dominic West as Richard’s adversary Henry). Ian McKellen, in pencil-thin moustache and exaggerated limp, is a wonderful Richard, capricious in his moods and enthusing over all his lines. One might expect the Americans in the cast to be out of place, and if in a sense this is true (their characters are outsiders to the York family), it’s certainly not the case in acting talent, with Annette Bening in particular more than holding her own against McKellen.
Cinematically opening up a stage play is always a tricky business, and it sometimes feels as if there’s just a few too many swooping camera moves and sinuous tracking shots to try and convince us that we’re not just watching actors declaiming on a stage. The use of the camera as a fourth wall, allowing McKellen to engage with us as audience, implicating us in his intrigues, is nicely done. He has some particular enjoyable small moments confiding in us/the camera with rolling eyes or sneaky sotto voce asides. The way, too, that this device is handed over at the end to his successor Henry — almost literally a sly wink at the viewer — is a great way to end the film, with that strong implication that nothing will change under Henry (as indeed history has long since tried to recorrect the balance in Shakespeare’s unkind portrayal of Richard as tyrant).
I would count this version of Richard III among my favourite screen adaptations of Shakespeare. I cannot speak to whether it is satisfying for those who have a deep love for and understanding of the original, as my familiarity with Shakespeare cannot compare to many of my friends and my wife. However, as a film, it easily stands on its own, even for those (such as I was when I first saw it) who don’t know the original, or who don’t think they like Shakespeare.
Director Richard Loncraine; Writers Ian McKellen and Loncraine (based on the play by William Shakespeare); Cinematographer Peter Biziou; Starring Ian McKellen, Annette Bening, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jim Broadbent, Robert Downey Jr.; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at Paramount, Wellington, February 1997 (also on DVD at home, London, Tuesday 7 May 2013).