RICHARD III first set Shakespeare’s quill to doth furious a’quiver back in 1563 (close enough), 3,718 lines worth. Numerous film versions date back to the silents. Laurence Olivier’s 1955 version ran 161 minutes. Ian McKellan pared it to a lean, mean 104 minutes for his dazzling 1995 tackle, starring in the lead, setting it up as Executive Producer, adapting and co-writing the screenplay with Richard Loncraine, who directed. Stem to stern superb, brilliantly done. Iconic as the mighty ‘Gandalf’ in The Lord of The Rings trilogy, splendid as the tormented James Whale in Gods And Monsters, McKellan’s flippantly funny, ferociously foul Richard remains his finest hour.
“Plots have I laid.”
The way we spout gibberish at each other now doesn’t exactly comport with the dense eloquence of Old Will S., but while the lofty beauty of the archaic dialogue may give us pause to hit pause & rewind, the stories, characters and situations never date because human nature has stayed locked in the same duel of nobility and treachery, grace and greed, wisdom and folly. Seizing the DNA gauntlet on that score, McKellan’s interpretation takes the people and their 1480s arguments and ingeniously updates them to a free-form faux-Fascist alternative England of the 1930s. The provocative and arresting production design uses uniforms, weapons, vehicles and assorted props and music ranging from the 1920s to the 40s, to deftly register contemporary relevance onto a modern audiences raised on 20th-century imagery. What’s a tank but a longbow with more reach? Oscar nominations went to the stellar Art Direction and Costume Design (the likewise rich Restoration took those trophies). The film is a breathless whirlwind of energy and creativity.
McKellan, front & center, is magnificent, backed by a top-rank cast: Annette Bening (terrific as Queen Elizabeth), Jim Broadbent, Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, Robert Downey Jr., John Wood, Nigel Hawthorne, Jim Carter, Adrian Dunbar, Dominic West (feature debut). They must have had a Royal blast making this. *
“Never hung poison on a fouler toad! Out of my sight! You do infect my eyes!”
Peter Biziou (Mississippi Burning) was the cinematographer, Trevor Jones (The Last Of The Mohicans) worked the score. Made for £6,000,000 (around $9,600,000 then), despite rhapsodic reviews it only drew $2,748,518 globally, a dim 166th place for the year. For shame, peasants.
* The director, Richard Loncraine: “When my wife, who is better read than I, suggests we go and see a Shakespeare play or film, my response is, ‘what else is playing?.’ I want to get over the ‘what else is playing?’ syndrome with this film. We should be able to reach the likes of me. I’m an educated film director, yet I’ve been nervous about going to see Shakespeare. But what I discovered is that Shakespeare wrote with a roller coaster of imagery, and I believe if he lived today, he’d be writing screenplays. To me, this film is a terrific story with great actors, and it should just be an exciting evening out…..The point is that Shakespeare’s political insights and what his stories were about still hold true,” Loncraine agrees. “It was a great discovery to find you could take his text as it was, edit it down a bit, and what was pertinent 400 years ago is still pertinent today, and probably will be 400 years from now. Jealousy, hate, love, violence…they’re all still realities in our world.”
McKellen: “I want to say to audiences who are bored at the mere mention of Shakespeare, ‘You’re about to have a great treat, courtesy of Shakespeare.’ And if audiences enjoy it, it will be Shakespeare they are enjoying, not Ian McKellen or Richard Loncraine or Annette Bening or any of us. We are just at the service of this extraordinary storyteller who can spring off the stage onto the cinema screen.,,,When you put this amazing old story in a believable modern setting, it will hopefully raise the hair on the back of your neck, and you won’t be able to dismiss it as ‘just a movie’ or, indeed, as ‘just old-fashioned Shakespeare’.”
Indeed (but, Sir Ian, do take a bow). Not-so-merry Olde England (and her unruly neighbors) got a right bloody workout in ’95—-Braveheart, Restoration (with Downey and McKellan), First Knight, Rob Roy and Sense And Sensibility—granted, only feelings get hurt in that one.