Monday, September 29, 2008

#75: Richard III


Richard III
Directed by Richard Loncraine
Written by Richard Loncraine and Ian McKellen (based on the play by William Shakespeare)
Released December 29, 1995

Clerks II. Game 6. Richard III. I sure am watching a lot of sequels lately.

While I've never seen the first two Richards, I was pretty confident in the script, since it was based on the works of the same guy who wrote the Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. While this film lacked a hip soundtrack and awful actors like John Leguizamo, I was willing to give it a shot.

Okay, don't worry: I'm done acting like a dummy.

Shakespeare's original play is a historical tragedy, telling the story of Richard's attempted rise to power by overthrowing his brothers, King Edward IV and Clarence, the next in the line of succession. Unfortunately or fortunately, I don't have the hours it would take to get into all of the plot machinations and twists of the play (sorry, Shawn). That's why I'm writing about movies, not literature. To put it as basic as possible, Richard is a sociopathic, ugly, powerhungry, killing motherfucker. One of Shakespeare's longest plays, Richard follows themes of fate versus free will, along with religion and the power that one can wield through the manipulation of ideology and belief.

Richard Loncraine and Ian McKellen's adaptation moves the setting to a fictionalized version of England in the 1930s, an England that gradually becomes more than a little like fascist Nazi Germany of the same era.

The movie opens with more than a few bangs as a tank blasts through the walls of a military hideout and McKellen's Richard, hunchbacked and with one dead arm, makes a murderous entrance. This betrayal is followed by a ballroom party where almost all of the major players are introduced, including Robert Downey Jr. as Lord Rivers, Annette Bening as Queen Elizabeth, Maggie Smith as Richard's mother Queen Margaret, plus Kristen Scott Thomas, Jim Broadbent, and even a young Dominic West (McNulty from The Wire).

Before anything else, you can't help but be impressed and dazzled by the set design and costumes. This thing looks like several million bucks.

Then, you're pulled in by McKellen's devious performance as this duplicitous monster. There's a scene early on in a bathroom where he stares at himself in the mirror, and then realizes that we - the audience - are watching his every move. He turns and lets us in on his scheme to disrupt the normal order of things, and then, with the wagging of a finger, invites us along for the ride. He's like Ferris Bueller if he were turn to to the camera and rather than tell us that he's going to skip school, he's going to pit his friends and family into a massive battle against each other.

McKellen's performance is virtuoso acting at its best, as he slithers in and out of every scene, gleefully seducing and double crossing everyone in his path and then marvelling at us as he pulls it all off. His is an especially impressive feat since he has surrounded himself with so many other great actors.

Richard III's most impressive feat is also what many would perceive as its "gimmick," moving Shakespeare's story ahead hundreds of years and turning its themes of fate into themes of power and corruption. This modernization shows, to put it simply, how one bad apple really can spoil the whole damn bunch. In this case, Richard is the bad apple which tears a family, a government and a country asunder. In the same way that Hitler slowly seduced a nation, Richard slowly goes from ugly duckling to protected tyrant. The beautiful art, architecture and stunning colors of the beginning of the movie slowly give way to the streamlined mono-chromaticism of imperialism.

If anything is problematic about the movie, it is perhaps that it crams a massive story into its less than 2 hour running time. It may be initially hard to follow, especially if you're not used to Shakespeare's dialogue. Beyond that, all of the performances are exceptional save for some of Bening's work, and the fact that Downey is unfortunately a bit underused and disposed of too early. Regardless, Richard III is riveting, and features a number of perfect, memorable scenes (like the opening, the morgue scene between McKellen and Scott Thomas, and Richard's coronation).

For more on Richard III:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Wikipedia page on Shakespeare's Richard III
- Ian McKellen's website about the movie
- Buy the DVD.

The Richard III trailer: