One of the few regrets I have from my days working as an actor was never having the opportunity to perform in a full length production of any works by William Shakespeare. Having been exposed to his plays from an early age — I was going to the Stradford Ontario Shakespeare Festival with my parents even before I was in high school — I never felt the same dread my contemporaries did when faced with the task of trying to decipher the meanings hidden within his text during school. In fact it was probably attending a production of his Richard lll during high school that inspired me to become an actor in the first place.
It was one of those weekday afternoon school performances, meaning the audience was filled with teenagers more interested in being released from the tedium of classes than in attending a play. When the lights dimmed – there is no curtain in the Festival Theatre at Stradford as they perform on a thrust stage similar to the kind used in Shakespeare’s time – and then came up again to reveal the actor playing Richard (Brian Bedford), hunched under the weight of his humped back, dragging his leg behind him, his withered arm dangling uselessly at his side, nervous giggling broke out and spread like wildfire through the audience. He stood centre stage, and with the regal disdain befitting his character and station, he stared them all down until you could hear a pin drop. They were his for the rest of the performance, from the opening lines to his final plea of “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse”.
Needless to say it’s always been one of my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays, no matter how historically inaccurate it might be. However, having been fortunate enough to have seen such a magnificent performance of it at an early age has perhaps spoiled me, for I have yet to see a performance, on film or stage, to match it. Yet, when I first heard that Ian McKellen had starred in a film version of the play, and helped work on adapting the script, I was intrigued. For some reason even though it was initially released in cinemas back in 1995, it has taken until now with MGM re-releasing their film version of Richard lll on DVD for me to see it.
Part of my hesitation surrounding the film was the fact the director had changed its setting from 16th century England to a fictional England in the 1930s. I’ve never been a big fan of updating Shakespeare into a contemporary setting, as the language seems to me so period specific, that having people speak in iambic pentameter behind the wheel of an armoured car or boarding an airplane has never worked for me. On the other hand the cast they had assembled for this production was so good that they stood a good chance of pulling it off. For joining McKellen was the cream of both British and American screen actors: Maggie Smith, Jim Broadbent, Annette Bening, Nigel Hawthorn, Kristen Scott Thomas, and Robert Downy Jr. in the lead roles and equally talented, but lesser known actors, filling out the supporting cast.
At an hour and 44 minutes it’s obvious they have lopped off a good deal of the script in order to satisfy the demands of a film audience. However, they have kept the basic story intact and made good use of film’s ability to tell a story through visuals to help fill in any blanks. Richard, Duke of York (McKellen) is the youngest brother of King Edward, and although hunchbacked and crippled with a withered arm and leg, has successfully led his brother’s armies in defeating their enemies in a brutal civil war. While everybody else settles in to enjoy “the idle pleasures” of peace, Richard is only too well aware of his inability to fit into pleasant society. So, as he so plainly puts it in the opening soliloquy, “Since I can not play the lover to entertain these fair well spoken days, I’m determined to prove a villain”.
So begins his bloody path to the throne. First of all he has to eliminate his brother, the Duke of Clarence (Nigel Hawthorne), his eldest brother King Edward (John Wood), and his two nephews, the king’s sons. Along the way Richard decides he needs a wife, so he marries Anne (Kristen Scott Thomas), the widow of the previous king’s son, a man he had killed in battle. With the support of the Duke of Buckingham (Jim Broadbent) and Sir William Catesby (Tim McInnerny) he manipulates events and people to have himself declared king after both his brothers are dead, and then proceeds to eliminate any potential troublemakers and rivals. Unfortunately, the Duke of Richmond (Dominic West), who Richard fears because of a prophesy naming him a future king of England, escapes his nets and flees to France where he raises an army to help him overthrow Richard.
While I still have my reservations about the wisdom of setting Shakespeare plays in modern times, I have to give credit to both director Richard Loncraine and Ian McKellen for the job they have done in adapting the script to the screen. Too often film versions of Shakespeare plays don’t take full advantage of the medium and end up failing because they can’t decide whether they are a play or a movie. The only nod made to theatre here is that instead of having him try to force the appearance of naturalism by speaking his lines to the air, they’ve elected to have McKellen address the camera directly during his asides and soliloquies in the opening scenes. While this might be a little disconcerting, it serves the purpose of drawing the audience into the plot quickly and helps set the stage for all future action.
As I had suspected upon seeing the cast list for this production, the performances are exemplary throughout. Shakespearean language is difficult at the best of times, but even more so on film because it lends itself so easily to declaiming rather than sounding like natural speech. However none of the actors in this production fall victim to this and manage to make it sound as natural as possible. Conversations are conducted like they would be in any film, while even in the most heated of moments the actors retain the clarity of speech required to communicate their feelings as well as the words’ meanings to an audience.
McKellen is riveting as Richard, the perfect combination of charisma and evil that makes you both repulsed by and fascinated with him simultaneously. The way he manages to seduce his former enemy’s widow while they both are standing over his corpse is a wonder. Kristen Scott Thomas’ reactions as he gradually changes her hatred into grudging respect and pity are a wonder, and only serve to confirm her status as a great actor. Other performances of note are the jobs that both Annette Benning and Maggie Smith do with their respective roles as Elizabeth, wife of King Edward, and the Duchess of York, Richard, Edward, and the Duke of Clarence’s mother. Nigel Hawthorn, although he is killed off early on in the proceedings, as George, the Duke of Clarence, gives a performance that will have you forgetting the cynical civil servant he was famous for on television’s Yes Minister the moment he opens his mouth. His quiet dignity is something to behold.
Of all the villains written about or created by Shakespeare, Richard lll is probably the one most love to hate. While this film version of Richard lll still didn’t manage to convince me of the validity of setting Shakespeare in modern times (it really strains credibility to have Richard sitting in a Jeep stuck in the mud and calling out “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse”), both the performances and the way in which it has been adapted for the screen make it worth watching.
While the DVD doesn’t include any special features, it does give you the option of watching it either in full screen or wide screen and the audio track has been re-mastered for 5.1 surround sound so it can be enjoyed on modern home theatre equipment. It may not be as impressive as a live performance of the play, but it is still one of the best film adaptations of a Shakespeare production that I’ve seen.