Richard III (United States/United Kingdom, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Richard III - it's Shakespeare that has nothing to do with Kenneth Branagh. Actually, at first glance, this film doesn't appear to have anything to do with the Bard's play, either. Opening in a 1930's England war room with a tank crashing through a wall, one is immediately struck by the realization that, whatever this movie is doing, it certainly isn't preserving the story's original time frame. However, while the sets and costumes have been moved to a mythical, Nazi-like pre-WWII England, the dialogue, characters, actions, and themes remain unchanged from the original text by Shakespeare. While this curious clash between a near-modern setting and the much older source material might seem confounding, it actually serves to energize the play, as well as making it more palatable to present-day audiences.

Being released at the same time as a new version of Othello (which has Branagh, along with Laurence Fishburn and Irene Jacob), Richard III is likely either to usher in a new, mini-era of screen Shakespeare revival, or show that two Shakespeare films are capable of glutting a small marketplace. Othello is a far more traditional interpretation than Richard III, and, other than authorship, about the only thing the movies have in common is that both excise significant portions of dialogue from the original text in the interest of saving time.

Richard III is the last in the series of Shakespeare histories to chronicle England's tribulations during the period before the Tudors took the throne (an event which occurs at the end of Richard III, when Henry VII, the first of the Tudors and grandfather to Shakespeare's Queen Elizabeth, becomes King). This play tells of the machinations of Richard (Ian McKellan), a royal prince with a twisted spine and grotesque physical appearance, to place himself in power. Richard is a spiteful person who kills without compunction and, in the process, earns nothing but enmity from all around him. There are four bodies that impede his march to the crown: two of his brothers -- Clarence and King Edward -- and the king's two young sons. One-by-one, Richard has them removed, caring only that he should one day rule England.

Sir Ian McKellan, a veteran of screen and stage, takes the title role of Richard and turns in a performance that is equal parts captivating magnetism and chilling menace. It's an amazing piece of acting that is worthy of notice at Oscar nomination time. A fine cast supports McKellan, including Kristin Scott-Thomas (Four Weddings and a Funeral) as Anne, Richard's wife; Annette Bening (The American President) as Queen Elizabeth; Nigel Hawthorne (The Madness of King George) as Clarence; John Wood (Sabrina) as King Edward; Jim Broadbent (Enchanted April) as Buckingham; Maggie Smith (The Secret Garden) as the Duchess of York, Richard's mother; and Robert Downey Jr. (Chaplin) as the queen's brother.

Does Richard have a conscience? Can evil such as his triumph completely, with no recompense expected on this side of the grave? Can the British monarchy exist without venom and corruption filtering up to the highest levels? These are a few of the more cogent questions addressed by Richard III, and McKellan and director Richard Loncraine make sure that they remain intact in the final version of the film.

In its own bloody way, Richard III is as enjoyable to watch as any recent screen production of Shakespeare, and the shift to the 1930's with its attendant Nazi imagery (parallels between Richard III and Hitler abound) gives the film a twist that conventional productions do not have. If there's a flaw to the movie, it's that this is one of Shakespeare's least ambitious and less thematically rich plays. Nevertheless, since the only memorable motion picture version is Lawrence Olivier's 1956 version, Richard III doesn't suffer from overexposure, and this new interpretation offers an unconventional-- and easily accessible -- perspective.

Richard III (United States/United Kingdom, 1995)