Tuesday, October 10, 2006

RE: Richard III - Film Version, 1994

Cindy's comments on this film, portions of which I have seen in a next room someplace, sent me looking for write-ups to IMDb (Internet Movie Database). There were surprisingly few reviews of much depth, however. The best I found was in the San Francisco Chronicle, which I include with three other excerpts below.


1. 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 1930s 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.

--James Berardinelli

2. There are other deft touches which distinguish the production. Casting the Queen Elizabeth and Earl Rivers roles as Americans not only lends international appeal to the film but also paints those characters as outsiders to the established York family. The set design is imaginative, with a miniaturized industrial-age London teeming with uniformed officers and the imposing, concrete Tower of London looming at the edge of town (actually an abandoned power station on the Thames, built in the 1930s). The rally that precedes Richard's coronation includes art deco-style murals (reminiscent of 1920s Soviet worker poster) in the back rooms as well as huge red banners decorating the arena whose central logo, a black boar, easily stands in for a swastika.

–Scott Deskin

3. The sinister mood continues as McKellan and director Richard Loncraine manage to implicate the audience in Richard's wickedness by having him deliver his monologues directly to the camera. This may not sound like much but, maybe because no one does this in the movies (except, occasionally, stand up comics) it has surprising power. (Laurence Olivier did it too in his 1955 version, to lesser effect, maybe because close-ups have never been as close as they are these days.) There's something sly in the way this movie surprises and draws us in. When Richard begins his "Now is the winter of our discontent..." soliloquy, it takes the form of a victory speech at his brother's coronation. But then he leaves the hall and begins to mutter; by the time the more personal sections of the speech come along -- where Richard reveals his evil core -- he's alone, relieving himself in a urinal. His eye catches the camera in the mirror and suddenly, he isn't talking to himself anymore. He's talking directly to us.

This thoughtful playfulness in the adaptation is so delightful that I found myself willing to forgive it some misses. The play has been cut down and streamlined so much that it pops from event to event without pausing to fill us in on background and motives, like a comic book version of the classic. Thus, Clarence of Gloucester is sentenced to death for no apparent reason, and within a few moments he's executed. Richard says he plans to wed Lady Anne and the next thing we know it's a done deal. Speeches are cut back to the bare bone, so at times it sounds like a Greatest Hits of the 1600s spot: "That I may die to look upon death no more..." and "A horse! My kingdom for a horse!"

--Stacey Richter

4. Right Time for "Richard III": The lowdown on Ian McKellen's '30s melodrama

by Mick LaSalle

Richard III combines a shrewd understanding of Shakespeare with a healthy, low-brow approach to cinema. The result is the best Shakespeare on screen since Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing.

Star Ian McKellen, who wrote the adaptation, and Richard Loncraine, who directed it, avoid the play's two pitfalls -- namely, comedy and drama. Err too much on the side of drama with Richard III, and you lose the humor. Err too much on the side of comedy, and you have a shambles.

McKellen and Loncraine split the difference here and give us what Shakespeare intended -- a melodrama. Along the way, they give us a lot of things Shakespeare didn't intend but might have found interesting: a new setting, new scenes (but no new dialogue) and lots of tanks, airplanes and machine guns.

Richard III moves the action of the Shakespeare play to a fictional Britain some time in the late 1930s. The country is in the midst of a civil war between the houses of York (Richard's side) and Lancaster. The war ends when Richard (McKellen) drives a tank through Lancaster headquarters and kills King Henry VI and his son.

It's a brazen opening to a film that, unlike many other literary adaptations, never seems uncomfortable being a movie. Richard III is a wholehearted embrace of movie-ness, an unembarrassed wallow in filmhood. The film makers know that with Richard III the bigger, the wilder, the crazier things get, the better, so long as the actors can match the movie's scale -- yet play it straight.

McKellen sets the tone. He makes Richard an appealing man, despite the hunchback, the limp and the useless left arm. He never acts like a sneak but like a sincere person. You'd believe his lies, too -- except that you know his real intentions from his asides and soliloquies spoken directly to the camera.

His first words in the film are public. He's at a banquet celebrating the Yorkist victory. The dance band is belting out a swing tune. Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, takes the microphone and toasts his brother, King Edward: "Now is the winter of our discontent . . ."

He says the friendly half of his speech there but finishes it privately in the men's room, while standing at the urinal: He is ugly. He wasn't made for peace and love. So he's going to be a villain and mess everybody up.

A good rule of thumb for Richard III is that if it's not fun, somebody's doing something wrong. Nothing's wrong here. Some of the unexpected visual touches are brilliant, others simply entertaining. But the picture never stops coming at you.

Switching the setting to the 1930s works as more than a gimmick. It makes the barbarism more immediate, while reminding us of the streak in human nature that has given rise to even worse atrocities this century. The '30s setting also allows for the novel touch of King Edward's wife Elizabeth (Annette Bening), and her brother, Rivers (Robert Downey Jr.), being played as Americans.

Bening is radiant as Elizabeth. Her recent roles have not been flattering to her nor have shown what she can do. But here -- as the fiercely intelligent and desperate queen of a dying monarch -- she makes the best case for herself as a film star since The Grifters.

The screenplay trims the play by about a third. I would have loved to have seen Bening in the scene in which Elizabeth begs the mad queen Margaret to teach her how to curse, but alas, 'tis gone. And the scene in which Clarence begs the paid assassins for his life is a bare shell of itself, even though Clarence is played by none other than Nigel Hawthorne.

But the cuts give the film velocity, and -- unlike in the film version of Othello -- they don't diminish our understanding of the central character. Richard's journey is complete.

Despite added scenes, the film only makes one addition to Shakespeare's text, a swing number, "Come Live With Me and Be My Love." Shakespeare didn't write it. The lyrics are a conflation of two poems: Marlowe's "Passionate Shepherd to His Lover" and Sir Walter Raleigh's "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd.''

It's a witty touch that makes people in the know feel smart.

–Mick Lasalle (San Francisco Chronicle, 1/19/06)

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