He is an unconscionable man of privilege who harbors discontent and hatred for all others beneath him. Who gained power through chicanery and by dividing and discrediting his friends and brothers until their careers were terminated. An expression of low-life and false charisma, an ugly somewhat deformed seducer who somehow wedded a beautiful and yet unhappy wife. He thinks only of himself rather than the people he should care for or represent. I’m speaking, of course, of the historical and Shakespearian character, Richard III. His character stretches beyond fact and has become a fabled legend that incarnates itself in various forms throughout history. If he ever fell from memory, then somehow, we would have to re-create him. Sir Ian McKellen did so onscreen in 1995.
Having starred in a theatrical version of the play designed in the backdrop of a 1930’s fascist Britain by Richard Eyre, McKellen and director Richard Loncraine sought to adapt said play for film. Some of the diluted designs of the costumes from the play can be seen onscreen as well. The closer you get to Richard of Gloucester the closer you are to resembling a Nazi in the SS, subdued though it may be to a degree, and the farther away you are the more you look like the Allies in British and American uniform. The cinematic experience being at once new and engaging for the 90’s while holding true to it’s Shakespearian roots. The film indeed opens like a Charles Bronson action movie. A Death Wish ala Ian McKellen, and what the Hell, let’s spell the letters with bursts of gunfire queueing them onscreen. BANG! R. BANG! I BANG! BANG! Richard III.
The film stays loyal to the source material through and through. Splendidly and believably bewitching us into the 1930’s where Britain wages a civil war, and the rebels are mercilessly crushed by Richard’s armies, bolstering his brother Edward to the throne. Sticking with the times we even get a good old-fashioned photo snapshot of the family, almost a reference photo for viewers and Richard to use for crossing X’s through people’s faces. Later we see more on the hitlist in the presence of Robert Downey Jr.’s Rivers, and Anette Benning as Queen Elizabeth. For Richard must peel these layers of British royalty and aristocracy to attain whatever he desires. The famous opening lines of the play “Now is the Winter of our discontent made glorious Summer…yadda yadda,” are cleverly matched with a sarcastic and ironically funny speech delivered at a party and transferred to privacy and then through the 4th wall, by the masterful Ian McKellen. His armless, deformed Richard is incredible and fearless.
McKellen carries the play, while limping, with such class and panache that one disregards the notion of a remake, this is a renew. After his frenemy has fallen he woos his widow in a hospital bathhouse and cheers of his seduction through a hospital filled with the wounded from battle. The villain himself, has deformed an arm and an eye in this version of the play. One notices Queen Ana’s discontent in Richard’s denial of her desires expressed in a satin gown, and her burgeoning alcoholism mixed with pill popping to ease her discontent. He hastens his brother Clarence’s execution in a prison bathtub, as well as his brother, King Edward with a weakened heart. One chitters with a gleeful schadenfreude with Richard’s dishonesty and stratagem as it draws closer to its lethal hold. While you don’t get to see every specific character meet their end as they do in the play, as some characters had to be condensed into one, Rivers for example is condensed with Grey, Vaughan, and Dorset. In the interest of time their pre-death monologues are also exempt.
But the deaths are still aplenty, and sometimes they speak more directly than their monologues do, at least from an action movie fan’s perspective. Hasting’s is hanged rather than beheaded and his head is presented to Richard in photographs instead of on a platter. A nice touch. Richard’s man Tyrell, James Tyrell, is utilized as the main assassin throughout and one detects a hint of homosexual appeal to his master Richard. McKellen nearly orgasms when Tyrell imbibes in a chocolate while vowing to kill Elizabeth’s children held captive in a tower.
(That tower phallic though it seems now, in fact, was one many of England’s famous landmarks utilized as backdrops in pre- and post-production, it being a power station before becoming the Tate Modern.)
As the bodies pile, Richard’s dress grows blacker and more fascistic until the gloomy moment when he celebrates his Kingship before a hall of supporters in jackboots and black, and a boar’s head flag that Hitler could be proud of. Shakespeare in Hitler’s Third Reich was appropriated immensely for propaganda purposes. Ironically, so too, ironically, is this new interpretation, albeit with loyalty to the source. Less propaganda but more of an identifier of fascisms spirit re-emerging. Evil ascending. But as they ascend it so often seems that the ones they stood on to beckon their reign buckle beneath their madness and narcissism until they inevitably fall, as McKellen’s Richard does into a blazing inferno. Richard III remains still and through the 90’s a classic reminder of Machiavellian rule and their consequences. Shakespeare would be proud of the adaptation, but dismayed at its relevance. So too, may we be.