It is a testament to the timelessness of William Shakespeare that so many filmmakers have adapted the Bard's plays and set them in time frames incongruous with our preconceptions. Yet, these adaptations usually work rather well, as both adaptations of Shakespeare and as more contemporized parables. Akira Kurosawa's "Ran" and Kenneth Branagh's "Hamlet" manage to make the Bard more accessible to modern audiences without losing the rich textures of his plays.
Few silver screen adaptations of Shakespeare are as bold as the version of "Richard III" that came out in 1995. Screenwriters Ian McKellen (who plays the titular role) and Richard Loncraine (who directed as well) update the play all the way into the 20th Century--the 1930s to be exact. They use the rise of European Fascism to draw comparisons between the most cunning villain in Shakespeare's canon and today's Machiavellian politicians.
"Richard III" traces the rise of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, to the throne of England. He's the youngest of three brothers, and he is physically deformed (a useless left hand and a nasty hump over his left shoulder). Therefore, he does the dirty work of leading the armies of the House of York against those of the House of Lancaster (historically known as England's "War of the Roses"--one side used white roses on their shields while the other side used red roses).
Richard is victorious, and his brother Edward becomes king. Little does Edward know that Richard is tired of being the errand boy, tired of being socially shunned due to his deformities, and tired of working for others' gain. Now, he wants to be king, and he will not stop at anything. Richard sets his family members against one another, and he schemes for the "justification" of his coronation through ruses, threats, and (what else?) a politically advantageous marriage. As Richard consolidates his power, we see England take upon more and more trappings of militaristic dress. Eventually, Richard assumes power in full blackshirt regalia, and his banner of a tusked boar's head imposed on a field of red is one step away from the Nazi swastika.
We are treated to bold interpretations of the Bard's text. For example, McKellen delivers most of the "Now is the winter of our discontent" monologue while standing at a urinal. Discontentment, indeed.
You might be taken aback to find Annette Bening and Robert Downey, Jr. in key roles in the film (she plays Edward's wife; he plays her brother). Yes, they have very American accents, but, don't worry, their characters were intended to be played as Americans. This is the filmmakers' conscious reflection on recent British monarchial history: Edward VIII abdicated the thrown so that he could marry American-divorcee Wallis Warfield Simpson. Rumor has it that Hitler might have re-installed Edward on the throne as a puppet had the Nazis conquered Britain.
Despite the fact that the film is filled with intentional and unintentional subtexts (coincidentally, one of the train engines in the film was a German model that was meant to pull Hitler's train!), it runs a brisk 104 minutes. The sheer audacity of the filmmakers' vision will enthrall the viewer. The aggressive approach to the material invigorates the text without drowning it (as in Baz Luhrman's loud and stupid "Romeo + Juliet)". Shakespeare channeled through Fascism? Trust me, the filter works.
The performances in "Richard III" put most other films to shame. McKellen, a figure of immense stature in acting circles, was able to collect an ensemble cast consisting of some of the finest British actors in recent years: Nigel Hawthorne, Maggie Smith, Jim Broadbent, etc. These names won't be that familiar to American audiences, but they are proud performers who firmly believe that there are no small roles, only small actors. Though the syntax of Shakespeare's dialogue is rather different from ours, the actors have a way of speaking their lines that helps us understand exactly what their characters are thinking.
Visually, the film is striking, and the scope and feel of the film will make you believe that it is some sort of $60 million epic when it was probably made for less than $2 million. Despite its small budget, the film garnered Oscar nominations for its Costumes and Art Direction.
The film print used for the transfer is a clean one, free from dirt and grain. No scratches or any other physical damage is apparent, and we are treated to a nice anamorphic print framed at a 2.35:1 ratio (a pan-and-scan version is available on the reverse side). Colors are strong, accurately recreating the theatrical beauty of the cinematographic compositions. However, the picture is a bit on the soft side, and edge enhancements cause slight shimmering on bright metallic surfaces (like jewelry or service trays).
The Dolby Digital 5.1 English track is a surprise. If this were a mainstream production, it would be a treat; as this is an art house flick, it is phenomenal. At the beginning of the film, there is a tank that crashes through a castle wall, and the distant rumblings fed through the LFE come close to matching the sonic subtlety found in the final battle of "Saving Private Ryan".
A French DD 2.0 mono track is included as a sock to Region 1 viewers in Quebec, Canada, but it is noticeably lacking in bass reproduction and expansiveness of music; also, the dialogue sounds tinnier on the 2.0 track. Subtitles are in French and Spanish only, though you can watch the movie with English closed captions.
As for extras, we have 32 chapter stops and one trailer in non-anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital 2.0 surround. This disc was produced prior to MGM's re-energized commitment to the DVD format. A glossy booklet provides chapter listings as well as some information about the making of the movie.
At the center of "Richard III" is Sir Ian McKellen. Actor, producer, and co-screenwriter, he probably had a guiding hand in every other aspect of the production as well. His sly, seductive performance will actually make you root for the bad guy, even as you're aware of the fascistic nature of his interpretation of Richard. Still, McKellen's commanding appraisal of one of the Bard's more overlooked works is a noteworthy achievement in late-20th Century cinema.