Where does one begin talking about a work of Shakespeare? I’m not sure, I’m also not sure if having not read, or watched a Richard III performance makes me a complete pleb, or puts me in the best position to watch this adaptation. All I know is, I love me some Ian McKellen chewing up the scenery in possibly the most vile role in his career.
It all starts with a civil war breaking out between two powerful families which comes to an abrupt end when Richard of Gloucester along with an army brutally devastate the opposition, and he murders King Henry VI and Prince Edward. Edward is not to be confused with Richard’s older brother who becomes the new king.
Richard grew up his whole life being hated, shunned by his parents all his life, seen as weak because of his physical disability where he must drag the left half of his body with him. It seems only natural he would become the fascistic assassin as depicted in the opening, a truly horrifying sequence where he, in a gasmask along with his men kill without hesitation unarmed men. Yet moments after bringing about peace and handing the throne to his brother he starts plotting against his own family, breaking it apart through treachery, murder, all that good stuff, all so he can attain ultimate power for himself.
This adaptation drops the play into 1930s Britain, lots of big band jazz and ballroom dances abound. It’s probably why some American actors like Robert Downey Jr. and Annette Bening turn up, but I wasn’t sure if they were performing English roles without any convincing accent, but they deliver admirable performances. Nothing can quite live up to what Ian McKellen brings to the screen, particularly in the fourth wall breaking scenes where he talks straight to the camera about his plots against an assortment of characters, almost always behind the backs of his prey. You despise him and yet you wait in anticipation for his next victim to fall into his trap.
It needs to be mentioned how brilliant the make-up design on McKellen looks, splitting his appearance right in the middle. A stupendously subtle effect where the left side of his face is wrinkled more than the right. His left eye more faded white, even his teeth are white on one side, and then rotten yellow on the other. It’s also a great way to visually symbolise his two-faced nature, always mannered and gracious when speaking in person, the next moment a devil. I also love how they follow up on the make-up design when Richard is finally crowned after murdering the people closest to him and his uniform and appearance becomes more a whole, his final transition into the cold, fascist half he always hid away.
It’s also great seeing Jim Broadbent, and a surprise appearance from Black-Adder’s Percy (Tim McInnerny), as Richard’s accomplices. The filmmakers occasionally miss the mark, where the fourth wall breaks and certain music choices might not sit so well together tonally. Some unsubtle Nazi imagery pops up, but that could be more the fault of commonplace Nazi’s in contemporary pop-culture tiring me, than the filmmakers fault. There’s also a great piece of creature prosthetics applied to McKellen in one scene, that isn’t quite executed in a scary way, making it look more silly than it is.
With 1995’s Richard III, you have Ian McKellen playing his most despicable role ever. The mistakes I found in the film were only half mistakes, meaning I only half-heartedly feel they don’t work, because on some other spectrum it all works as a surreal, psychological horror, with all sorts of lovely betrayal and murder we all know Shakespeare’s known for.
Dir: Richard Loncraine
Scr: Ian McKellen, Richard Loncraine
Cast: Ian McKellen, Annette Bening, Jim Broadbent, Robert Downey Jr., Nigel Hawthorne, Kristin Scott Thomas, John Wood, Maggie Smith, Jim Carter, Edward Hardwicke, Adrian Dunbar, Tres Hanley, Dominic West, Roger Hammond, Tim McInnerny
Prd: Maria Apodiacos, Stephen Bayly, Lisa Katselas, David Lascelles, Ellen Dinerman Little, Ian McKellen, Mary Richards, Joe Simon, Michele Tandy
DOP: Peter Biziou
Music: Trevor Jones
Running Time: 104 mins
Richard III is being screened on the 28th April, to mark of the 400th Anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and the event will include a special post-film Q&A discussion with Sir Ian McKellen and director Richard Loncraine live via satellite in nationwide cinemas from BFI Southbank. Additionally, the screening will also begin with an exclusive documentary in which both Sir Ian McKellen and director Richard Loncraine reflect on the filmmaking process of Richard III and the continuing significance of Shakespeare in society today.
The film will be screened at the following locations:
Aldeburgh, Aldeburgh Cinema
Bath, The Little Theatre Cinema
Belper, Ritz Cinema
Bradford, National Media Museum
Brighton, Duke of York’s Picture House
Bury St Edmunds, Abbeygate Cinema
Cambridge, Cambridge Arts Picturehouse
Canterbury, Gulbenkian Cinema
Chichester, Chichester Cinema at New Park
Dartington, Barn Cinema
Exeter, Exeter Picturehouse
Haverhill, Haverhill Arts Centre
Hawkhurst, Kino Hawkhurst
Henley-on-Thames, Regal Picturehouse
Hexham, Forum Cinema
Keswick, Alhambra Cinema
Lancaster, The Dukes
London, BFI Southbank
London, Clapham Picturehouse
London, Crouch End Picturehouse
London, East Dulwich Picturehouse
London, Greenwich Picturehouse
London, Hackney Picturehouse
London, Lexi Cinema
London, Olympic Studios
London, Phoenix East Finchley
London, Ritzy Picturehouse
Melton Mowbray, Regal Cinema
Newcastle, Tyneside Cinema
Northampton, Errol Flynn Filmhouse
Norwich, Cinema City
Nottingham, Broadway Cinema
Oxford, Phoenix Picturehouse
Penistone, Penistone Paramount Cinema
Poole, The Lighthouse
Rye, Kino Rye
Sheffield Showroom Cinema
Southampton, Harbour Lights Picturehouse
Stockport, Savoy Cinema Heaton Moor
Stratford-upon-Avon, Stratford-upon-Avon Picturehouse
Truro, Plaza Cinema
Welwyn Garden City, Garden City Cinema
York, City Screen Picturehouse
Belfast, Queens Film Theatre