Historians tell us that King Richard III's reputation as England's most ruthless monarch is a bit inflated. In all likelihood, he wasn't even the original Tricky Dick: A century earlier, after all, Richard II murdered one of his uncles and confiscated his cousin's estates before getting himself imprisoned in Pontefract Castle for the rest of his life.
Little matter. Thomas More and Shakespeare both knew a good story when they made one up, and the latter's Richard III has prevailed for four centuries as a portrait of savage ambition, cunning and megalomania.
Now the splendid Shakespearean actor Ian Mc-Kellen and British director Richard Loncraine have encrusted the old boy with a new layer of myth. Some purists may cringe at the fact that Richard has been transplanted to another age of turmoil and tyranny--the 1930s--and that Loncraine has sought to attract younger, "non-traditional" audiences with a couple of explosive war-action sequences worthy of a Schwarzenegger flick. So much the better, I say: Anything that might exalt the father of the English language and the greatest writer of all time in the eyes of doubters and non-readers is clearly valuable.
But that is not to say that this new Richard III is some sort of reductionist comic book. The action scenes, full of wit and excitement, remind us that Shakespeare was a good storyteller as well as a poet. And the era of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Franco certainly suits Shakespeare's great villain, just as it suited Orson Welles's legendary 1937 stage production of Julius Caesar, which was rife with suggestions of the gathering storm in Europe. If anything, Richard III is a more apt antecedent of this century's most notorious dictators, and McKellen fuses them with the Bard's creation in a performance of power and profound implication. He combines a twisted grimace and a dry cackle with the king's hunched back and withered arm--the outward signs of an impoverished soul driven to murder. And he confides to us--talking straight-on to the camera--his devious plots. The "bottled spider" gets right in our faces, and we cannot look away.
It may be startling to hear Richard offer his "kingdom for a horse" while sitting at the wheel of a wrecked Jeep, downright disorienting to see the famous "winter of our discontent" speech begin in a ballroom where a Thirties swing band is celebrating his doomed brother Edward's coronation, then wind up in the royal lavatory, where McKellen delivers some of the Bard's most enduring lines while standing at the urinal. But such modernist choices come to make pretty good sense. Richard and his henchmen chain-smoke cigarettes, for instance, which suggests the poisoning of the entire state; Lady Anne (Kristin Scott Thomas), widow of the slain King Henry and the treacherous Richard's new bride, expresses her self-loathing in heroin addiction. After knocking off most of his immediate family and those two little princes up in the Tower (here a decrepit London power station), Richard seizes the throne, and at that moment, the regime's uniforms turn fascist black. He sets up headquarters in what looks like the Reichstag. There's even a facsimile of the Nuremberg rallies, complete with jackbooted marchers and blood-red banners.
The filmmakers could have let their jones for the twentieth century get out of hand, but they never forget sixteenth-century poetry. For this 100-minute Richard III, minor characters have been dropped and scenes cut (a stage production can run three hours or more), but the losses aren't as damaging as they are in the word-poor new film Othello. Actually, concision may have distilled the play's power, and Richard's final battle at Bosworth Field--an orgy of machine guns, tanks and fighter planes this time around--provides splendid contrast to the timeless beauty of the language. Director Loncraine's recent assertion that if Shakespeare were alive today, "he'd be writing screenplays" may be ingenuous, but not only is this radical treatment of a classic inventive, it underlines Shakespeare's capacity to embrace eras and expand meanings.
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To be sure, this is McKellen's vehicle all the way, and not even the formidable ghost of Laurence Olivier's Richard seems to daunt him. As a matter of fact, Sir Ian even collaborated on the screenplay (not with Shakespeare, but with the director), and the highest compliment I can think of in that regard is that you feel like taking a shower after he gets done with you.
The rest of the cast is also strong--Annette Bening and Robert Downey Jr. as outright American strangers embroiled in a reimagined English court of the Thirties (farfetched? Remember Wallis Simpson), Jim Broadbent as the calculating Buckingham and the great Maggie Smith as the mad king's all-seeing mother, the Duchess of York, who tells him in no uncertain terms that he's still Little Richard. Adrian Dunbar is properly oily as the murderous Tyrell, but we see far too little of Nigel Hawthorne (last year's cinematic mad George III) as the trusting but ill-fated Duke of Clarence, soon to be dispatched in a prison bathtub by his cruel brother's order.
For treachery, intrigue and evil, it's been hard to top Richard III for four hundred years, and there's no reason to look for a new rival now--even if the guy may have gotten a bum rap. What we have here is villainy appropriate to any age.