Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film

#29. Richard Loncraine’s Richard III (1995)

In Looking for Richard, Al Pacino seemed flummoxed by the possibility of coming to a basic understanding of Shakespeare, using the relatively obscure Richard III as his point of entry into the bard’s oeuvre.

In a conspiracy of timing, Pacino must have been working on Looking for Richard around the same time, or just before, Richard Loncraine’s film of Richard IIIstarring Ian McKellenwas released.

richard 3 poster.jpg

Ian McKellen found Richard easily.

R3 5Besides having decades of experience acting Shakespeare, McKellen had more than a normal amount of rehearsal for the part, considering that the film production was adapted from a Royal National Theatre production that he had starred in.

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Unlike the relatively historically-accurate setting of Olivier’s film of R3, Loncraine’s film is a mid-twentieth century version that imagines Richard’s reign along the lines of fascism and World War II. At times, this seems hyperbolic, imagining the play as a brutal action film. (This predates a similar approach to Coriolanus and Macbeth.)

R3 12The fulcrum for this vision, though, is Richard’s soliloquies, often delivered as confidential asides to himself, then when he notices us, delivered to us, the audience, bragging about the mischief he is accomplishing.

R3 10Richard may be evil and a little crazy as he lies and murders his way to the crown, but he is charming, and the nuances of McKellen’s performance is glorious

R3 9As the hunchbacked war veteran who fate in peacetime is to rot, ignored, as fourth in the line of succession, Richard’s motivations can be understood:

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,

To entertain these fair well-spoken days,

I am determined to prove a villain

And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

But to understand his motivations is to pedantically miss the point. One he tries his hand at villainy, Richard likes being a villain. He is showing mastery over something he is good at. He is good at being a villain despite how everyone, based upon how he looks, expects him to be a villain.

R3 7This spectacle can take the edge off of a brutal election season, I find.

The cast of this R3 is a bit uneven. You have amazing Shakespearean talent such as Maggie Smith, Jim Broadbent, Jim Carter, and Nigel Hawthorne. Yet there are Hollywood actors like Annette Bening and Robert Downey, Jr. being not entirely persuasive next to them, along the lines of the heterogenous casting logic of Branagh. Bening plays Queen Elizabeth, Richard’s sister-in-law, and Downey plays Rivers, her brother. (Thus the Americans play in-laws.)

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Annette Bening, Robert Downy, Jr., and Maggie Smith

Downey has almost no lines, and is not memorable when he has lines, and Bening’s performance is not quite strong, either. One gets the idea that for them the dialogue is a large mouthful, and Bening seems to be affecting an exaggerated enunciation that suggests a plebeian sense of pomp, although in fairness this may be her interpretation of the part. These two performances, despite my throat-clearing on the subject, are never outright bad.

Into the mixture is Kristin Scott Thomas, of Four Weddings and a Funeral and The English Patient fame, as Lady Anne, one of the most confoundingly difficult parts in Shakespeare.

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While quite English, Thomas does not have a Shakespearean background, but manages the emotional acrobatics of the grieving widow wooed by Richard rather well.

R3 13Unlike Olivier’s film, this Richard III dramatizes Lady Anne’s remorse at having been wooed by him.

Of all of films made of Shakespeare’s work, Loncraine’s Richard III is a wonderfully cinematic vision, and the adaptation from stage to cinema was not rushed, but done with a remarkable sense of composition, cinematography, and editing. Despite a few flaws, too few to mention, this is among the very best film adaptations of Shakespeare. For newcomers who don’t mind a modern setting, this is a wonderful place to start.

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John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.

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