Richard III: Ian McKellen Shines in Loncraine’s New Version of Shakepeare

“I want to look a little bit like Clark Gable and a little bit like Vincent Price,” Ian McKellen, the distinguished British actor, said about his modern interpretation of Shakespeare’s classic, Richard III. And indeed, sporting a mustache that’s part Gable part Hitler, and a frightening look that would make Price proud, the dapper McKellen commands a unique kind of authority, at once menacing and charismatic.

Though directed by Richard Loncraine, a filmmaker not well-known in the U.S., McKellen’s fingerprints are all over the film, which is based on his acclaimed stage production. McKellen co-wrote the screenplay (with Loncraine) while touring with the play, and then devoted two full years to selling the project. Seeing his vision make it to the big screen intact–without compromise–is in itself a major achievement.

McKellen has shrewdly transplanted the ornate Medieval tale of family feuds to l930s England, with specific allusions to Hitler and the rise of nazism. As original as this strategy seems, it’s not the first attempt to “update” Shakespeare in this way. Back in l937, Orson Welles staged a landmark production of Julius Caesar with a fascist angle. Still, the modern setting not only works but also makes the play more accessible to today’s audiences.

The epic saga begins with a bloody battle, in which Richard conquers his opponents and kills Prince Edward. In the ensuing victory party, where a lush production of a Marlowe play is performed, Richard takes center stage and recites the famous monologue “Now is the winter of our discontent.” This speech begins in public, then continues in a more private context, the lavatory, where Richard addresses the camera directly. Speaking to the camera is a risky device in film, one mostly used in comedies, but in this case the commentary that Richard provides, disclosing his power schemes and intrigues, implicates the viewers in the plot and makes the film even more involving.

Of course, this kind of rendition would not be effective if it didn’t feature a truly dazzling performance–Sir Ian McKellen is rightly considered one of Britain’s foremost Shakespearean actors. As an openly gay actor, who was knighted in the l980s, and a dedicated gay activist, McKellen does our community proud.
McKellen plays Richard as the dark heart of a royal family, a black-shirted tyrant who’s physically deformed–bearing a hunchback and a withered left arm. As a fighting soldier, he had conquered his disabilities, finding glory on the battlefield. But now, in the dreary calm of peacetime, he conceives of a new, far more ferocious, far less honorable war: the crown. Two allies are enlisted to aid in his treachery: the greedy Duke of Buckingham (Jim Broadbent) and James Tyrell (Adrian Dunbar), a corporal who becomes Richard’s ruthless henchman.

Self-conscious, Richard regards his ugly visage with mocking disdain. But he strikes a bargain–if he won’t be accepted as a great lover, he will excel as a great villain. Richard’s wiles are not wasted as he woos and wins the hand of Lady Anne (wonderfully played by Kristin Scott Thomas), the widow of the very man he killed to gain the kingdom for his brother. Later, plotting to rid himself of Lady Anne, who becomes a pathetic pill-popping addict, he marries Princess Elizabeth, the daughter of Queen Elizabeth and the late King Edward.

Richard III is conceived as a gangster saga, the rise and fall of a Machiavellian thug who becomes a victim of his own ruthless power. Loncraine unfolds the complicated tale in a staccato pacing; this may be the briskest Shakespeare ever filmed. You may complain that a more modulated rhythm would have benefitted the quieter and sadder moments. But the combination of a machine-gun pace, energy, and visual flair more than compensate.

Like most British films, Richard III is populated with a wonderful ensemble of stage actors, including Nigel Hawthorne, as Richard’s brother, Clarence, who’s assassinated in the bathtub, and Maggie Smith (sans makeup), as the long-suffering Duchess of York. However, there are two inexplicable casting errors: Annette Bening, as Queen Elizabeth and Robert Downey Jr. as her brother, Earl Rivers. Too American in appearance and speech, they stick out like sore thumbs in an otherwise remarkably coherent production.

But these are minor faults considering the magnitude of the film’s scale and its splendid Art Deco design. The ominous sets (designed by Tony Burrough) often dwarf the humans who inhabit them, but they never take precedence, never overwhelm the text, for which McKellen shows utmost respect.

Clocking in at a mere 105 minutes, this Richard III is shorter than Sir Laurence Olivier’s celebrated l955 version by almost an hour, but this stripped-down film pulsates with audacity and gusto. Don’t dismiss this movie as yet another British vanity production. Its new setting highlights even more the timeliness of Shakespeare’s cautionary tale of the corruption and abuse of power.