Richard III (1995)

Ian McKellen as Richard IIIStarring Ian McKellen, Annette Bening, Jim Broadbent, Robert Downey Jr., Kristin Scott Thomas, and Nigel Hawthorne.
Screenplay by Richard Loncraine and Ian McKellen, based on the play Richard III by Richard Eyre, adapted from Richard III by William Shakespeare.
Directed by Richard Loncraine.

Grade: A

Review by Carlo Cavagna.

Richard III is a modern adaptation of the Shakespeare play of the same name, in which the nefarious Richard murders his way to the throne of England. Standing in Richard's way are his elder brothers, King Edward IV and Clarence, as well as Edward's sons, who are all ahead of Richard in the line of succession. While Shakespeare probably exaggerated Richard's crimes, the story is based on historical fact. The real Richard did usurp the throne and was almost certainly responsible at least for the death of Edward's eldest son.

To explain one reason why this movie is such a brilliant adaptation of Shakespeare's play, it is perhaps helpful to review a bit more history. In 1461, following the Wars of the Roses, the Duke of York became Edward IV, king of England. Historian M. H. Keen describes how the Yorks rose to power in part by charging the ruling Somersets with responsibility for the loss of England's territories in France:

The loss of the English provinces was a tremendous blow to national pride. For the thirty-five years...their conquest and defense had been consuming blood and treasure, and the shock was traumatic.... In the 1450s the individual ruin of those who had made the war in France their honorable livelihood was visible, and visible misfortune has a way of making those who see it angry.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the culpable loss of [the French territories] was a recurrent theme of Yorkist propaganda.... [York] took up the...theme of ‘the overgreat dishonors and losses that be come to this full noble realm of England.'... [York accused] the courtiers [of allowing] ‘all the old France and be shamefully lost and sold.' By then York's one time success as a lieutenant in Normandy was passing into the mythology of his party....

Yorkist broadsheet propaganda engendered a whole historical mythology of its own.... The justice of the claim of the true blood of York...was attested by the victories that God had given them over their adversaries in the field. Yorkist kingship thus sought a martial, chivalrous glamour....

In short, the Yorks rallied popular support by appealing to nationalist pride and accusing the ruling family of weakness. In contrast, the Yorks presented themselves as a strong military family, whom God had blessed with success in the field and who would restore to England its honor, its land, and its manhood. Sound familiar? There are parallels, are there not, in the Fascist ascent to power in Italy and Hitler's rise in the defeated Germany of the 1920s and 30s? Richard III battle scene

Setting Richard III in a fictional fascist England of the 1930s is inspired. The context suits the story and the dialogue perfectly. Moreover, the 20th century backdrop lends to the story an immediacy that highlights the fact that humanity has not changed much over the centuries. You soon forget that you are listening to the words of a playwright dead some 400 years.

Visually stunning and extraordinarily well-acted, Richard III is without question one of the best Shakespeare film adaptations ever made. Leading the all-star cast is Sir Ian McKellen as the malevolent, deformed, two-faced usurper. He commands your attention from the moment he appears on the screen. Annette Bening is Elizabeth, the wife of Richard's older brother Edward IV. She is establishing herself as one the best and most versatile contemporary actresses. Normally an American among a cast of veteran British actors would stick out like a sore thumb, but not so here.

If there is a flaw in the movie, it is that it is too short--under two hours long. Although all the highlights of the story are preserved, at least half of Shakespeare's words have been cut out. As a result, characters are introduced and murdered with confusing rapidity. They could have safely restored to the story an extra half-hour or so of dialogue. After all, the author wasn't exactly a hack.

Review © March 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 1996 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Inc. All rights reserved.

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