Richard III (1995)

D: Richard Loncraine
S: Ian McKellen, Annette Bening, Jim Broadbent

Energetic and fast paced (perhaps too fast paced) adaptation of Shakespeare's play updated to a twentieth century setting. Following a bloody civil war, the York family become the Royals of England. Richard (Ian McKellen), a physically deformed and mentally dark member of the family sets his sights on the throne. The fact that he must kill his two brothers, some nephews and several miscellaneous courtiers to get it is of little worry to him. On the contrary, he treats it like a game with the audience, with whom he conspires through a series of asides to explain his plotting.

Retaining the Shakespearian dialogue but compressing some characters and action, Richard Loncraine's film version of the celebrated stage show by Richard Eyre and McKellen succeeds in its conceit of setting the action in a 1930s world in which Richard becomes a fascist dictator modelled after Hitler and Mussolini (complete with black uniforms and distinctive insignia). Like Richard himself, this somewhat playful, somewhat serious approach is morbidly fascinating. McKellen is effective, backed by a large and substantial cast including Nigel Hawthorn, Adrian Dunbar, Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith and Robert Downey Jnr.

The inclusion of scenes of graphic violence, sex and even drugs may confuse those for whom Shakespeare represents a safe and anaemic form of culture, but should not surprise anyone who has ever studied the work. Richard is among Shakespeare's most fascinating characters, an example of a gleeful anti-hero many years before this became commonplace, and though the ending of the film somewhat distorts the ending of the play, it captures an essential vicious black humour exhibited in the dialogue throughout.

It moves very fast, which is often not the best way to keep the audience involved, especially when swathes of intricate plotting pass by in minutes. The essentials are there though, and with the benefit of McKellen's strong presence to help us, we tend to excuse its omissions and contractions. It will still not prove popular with all audiences, and is probably best suited to those who have read the play, which can't have been the original intention. This aside it is certainly worth watching as an important moment in the postmodern evolution of The Bard.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.