I appear to have Richard III in the brain. First I saw two documentaries about making the play itself and now it’s turn for a full fledged feature film adaptation. I also just bought the book version of the play, so I think it’s prudent to suspect I might have a bit of a Richard problem.
We’ll start this by going off on a tiny tangent before talking about the film itself. I found it quite odd I wasn’t aware of the existence of this film until now, given the impeccable cast roster involved. You have Ian McKellen playing the titular role, then there’s Maggie Smith, Robert Downey Jr., Annette Benning, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jim Broadbent… Hell, you even have a young Dominic West, in what must be the first time I have ever see him act without a fake American accent. With so many familiar names attached, one would assume that this would have left some kind of an impression on me when in the past I’ve undoubtedly poured through the filmography listings of most the before mentioned actors. It’s also strange I don’t even have a vague sense of any type of hubbub about the movie itself when it was released. It could very well be that I was just too young to pay any attention at the time of its release, but that doesn’t hold much water because I clearly remember in the following year being painfully informed of Romeo + Juliet coming out. Granted, part of that was due to my cousin being very into it thanks to the oh so dreamy (pre-Titanic fame) Leonard DiCaprio starring in the lead role. And Ian McKellen, in his mid-to-early fifties I believe, was not exactly a very big sex symbol for teenage girls in the 90s, so the demo for Richard III was different from R+J and the buzz would have been different. You know, getting even more side tracked, I actually should try to watch R+J again. Maybe now as an adult I wouldn’t be so awfully dismissive of it like I was as a kid, when romance was still unappealing/icky subject as far as movies went. At the very least the modern setting and playing it like it was set in modern day L.A., IIRC, should make it entertaining enough to warrant a more mature look.
Anyway, back to the real subject, Richard III circa 1995. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed In McKellen’s acting more than in this film. His version of Richard is so impeccable that I inexplicably find myself wanting to re-watch Apt Pupil. Probably it’s the fascist overtones hard at work influencing my subconscious. That’s right, this version of the play re-imagines the setting of the play as a fictionalized, more fascistic pre-WW2 era of the 1930s Britain, evoking Nazi style iconography everywhere Richard strides. Well, limps. Nothing says this stronger than the scene where Richard is made King, and it looks strikingly similar to the Nuremberg rallies that led Hitler rising to power. Suffice to say, the aesthetics of the film delighted me to no end. Early 20th century (military) fashion and technology and the moody Jazz inspired soundtrack? You’re pushing all the right buttons as far as I’m concerned, movie. Keep it up, I’m all hot and bothered already and we’ve barely gotten past the opening monologue where Richard starts the play by delivering the line “Now is the winter of our discontent.”
The film came very close to being perfect in my eyes, but there were couple of scenes I found a bit lacking. One such scene was where Richard orchestrates the death of Sir Hastings, the biggest obstacle in the way of Richard’s ascension to the throne of England. The scene doesn’t seem to have as much gravitas as one might hope. For example in Looking for Richard, there was far more passion and rage in Pacino’s delivery of Richard’s lines when he damns Sir Hastings to be killed, where as McKellen’s version of Richard is more composed. There’s certainly powerful emotions souring through McKellen’s performance when he waves is useless cripple arm around and blames it on witchcraft, but when he demands Sir Hastings to be killed, it doesn’t quite come off as volatile as it did with Pacino. Cinematically, Pacino had the scene be a bit more exciting and passionate, while McKellen had the scene play out more realistically. His Richard comes off as someone whose honor is being offended, rather than a raving lunatic, so it’s not as dramatic. It’s a superficial complaint, I admit. But I suppose that’s the difference between the two actors. Pacino’s far more of a powder keg while McKellen’s got that serious presence to him where he gets the same point across with slightly less emotional outburst.
In essence, Richard Loncraine’s contemporary take on Richard III is an atmospheric and vastly compelling re-visioning of the classic play and is absolutely captivating to watch. It’s accessible, smart and above all, fun to watch. Who doesn’t like seeing a real bastard worm his way to the top while being all smug about it while breaking the fourth wall? It does a good job of updating the milieu and the entire play to a more contemporary setting without it ever coming off strange or forced. Even Richard’s famous line “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” is cleverly recontextualized to Richard lamenting his bad luck when his jeep becomes stuck and it works beautifully.