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Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film 2

72. Dominic Cooke’s Richard III (2016)

This rogue who reviews Shakespeare films for you, dear readers, gets jaded sometimes. I expect these films to be good. Not just un-terrible, but quite seriously good.

Henry VI Parts 1-3 were so good on The Hollow Crown that I approached its Richard III with some sense of crankiness. Olivier and McKellan have given me high standards for this Machiavellian hero, plus I adore Benedict Cumberbatch, but I refuse to feel any personal emotion akin to hype.

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I am happy to report that Richard III is somehow better than those with Olivier and McKellan.

The opening soliloquy is given an exquisite gravity by Cumberbatch delivering it shirtless.

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Before he begins, the camera dollies around him, revealing the distorted range of his hunched back, his torso straining for breath. This would be in unforgivable taste if the effects were not credible, but these effects work, which makes his speech to us—letting us know of his motivations and his plot to manipulate the court into giving him the throne—more intimate and urgent.

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Richard is driven to this because in peacetime, he is a freak who his royal family is ashamed of and distrusts despite his loyal service to them. Now as a self-professed villain, Richard takes great joy in testing Machiavelli’s theories, lavishing in his amoral victories. In most performances, there is bravado with a tinge of pathos, since he is using the court’s moral and intellectual flaws against it, and if the court had valued him in the first place, he would not have undertaken these plots. Anyone who has ever felt like an outsider can sympathize with Richard’s rage, and can identify with his sense of self-worth despite the world’s contempt.

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But Cumberbatch’s performance seems to add more than a tinge of pathos. Richard acts as if he is the most morally upright member of the court, and this could indicate that he is simply an adept liar who can believe his own lies when he is lying. Or, and I find this possibility intriguing, Cumberbatch’s Richard might be testing the court, and giving it an opportunity to prove him wrong. Perhaps the king will not be petty and superstitious.

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Perhaps Lady Anne will not be flattered into giving over her grief and loving her enemy. Perhaps Richard’s mother will not treat him with condescension and mistrust.

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One of my favorite lines from Richard III is “A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!” The logic of this is that Richard would trade the kingdom he is king of in order to have a horse he could mount in order to try to win the country he is king of.

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Richard doesn’t have any use for peacetime, and having won the crown has not solved any of those emotional wounds he expressed in the opening soliloquy.

The acting in this film is top notch. Phoebe Fox is a memorable Lady Anne, and Judy Dench manages to convey a dignified wariness as Cecily, the mother of Edward and Richard, that makes it difficult to tell if she has disliked her deformed son for his deformity, or for his aggressive tendencies. Sophie Okenedo returns as Margaret, mad and prone to cursing the royal family, and the older, haggard version of this de-throned queen is somehow more impressive than the mincing, self-entitled sociopath of Henry VI.

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There is a manic quality to Cumberbatch’s performance after Richard becomes king. The effect is almost like a Modernist play at times. This is a dervish compared to the simpering complaints of Richard II. Richard III is a perfect conclusion to a play sequence that questions the divine right of kings, and the unbearable likelihood that shifts in power seldom happen because of actual moral right. Power is such a volatile thing, and humans are all too flawed. These plays give those flaws and that volatility a brilliant clarity.

Oh, and it’s damned entertaining to have Richard offer meta-commentaries to us about his crimes.


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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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