Like everyone in the English-speaking world, I had to read my share of Shakespeare during my formative years. I spent three years in high school with the Bard, making my way through Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, and Macbeth. I didn’t hate the time I spent with those plays, but it was like so much of school. You memorize something long enough to do the final exam, then it just washes away. Lately, however, I’ve been developing an appreciation for Shakespearian adaptations that modernize the settings but keep the original language. Hardly an original concept, true, but there’s something to be said about keeping the poetry of Shakespeare’s original work, but putting it into a twentieth-century frame of reference that lets the work throw off the weight of centuries and connect with the audience, perhaps letting them see a glimmer of what the plays meant when they were new. As most of these adaptations I’ve watched are film adaptations of stage plays, some of the slipperiness of setting common to the theater remains in the film, often turning these stories into immortal fables whose lessons can apply to every era.
Now, I personally have a taste for Shakespeare’s tragedies and history plays, so my list of favorite adaptations includes such lights as Ralph Fiennes’ Balkanized Coriolanus (2011), Julie Taymor’s gonzo Titus (1999), and Rupert Goold’s Stalinist Macbeth (2010), about which more later. However, my favorite one of these adaptations has to be Richard Loncraine’s Richard III from 1995, with Sir Ian McKellen in the title role.
The idea is pretty simple: it’s Richard III, but set in the Britain of the 1930s instead of the 1480s. The story is as we know it; after a long civil war the nation has fallen into an uneasy peace, with sickly King Edward IV (John Wood) on the throne, feuding with his brother Clarence (Nigel Hawthorne) and married to Elizabeth, a woman disliked by many for her family’s origins. In a neat little touch to the controversy surrounding Wallis Simpson, both Elizabeth (Annette Bening) and her brother Rivers (Robert Downey Jr. in his young-and-druggie prime) have been recast as Americans rather than merely common-born. At the center of all this woe is, of course, Richard himself. Despising these idle days of peace, he has made it his mission to cajole, plot, and murder his way to the throne, all while sparing us none of the delightfully gory details.
Of course, any production of Richard III lives or dies by its Richard, and here McKellen turns in a career best. At the beginning of the film, he vows to us that “since I cannot prove a lover I am determined to prove a villain,” and damned if he doesn’t try his hardest. McKellen’s Richard is a man who will flip through photos of the lynched Prime Minister, Lord Hastings (Jim Carter), whilst humming show tunes to himself. It’s not all mustache-twisting, though – every actor has their own spin on Richard, and McKellen’s take draws out the Richard’s performative aspects, the usurper as actor. He can doff and discard a mask with the best of them, and he can flatter with the best of them (though not without a sarcastic little aside to us). His costuming likewise evolves throughout the film. In the first acts he remains out of place in the royal proceedings in military uniform. As his plots grow and multiply he grows more comfortable in the King’s company, appearing at ease in a dinner jacket or a light summer suit. As he nears his goal, he transforms again, this time into the blackshirted leader of a mass movement.
The fascist imagery of the film raises interesting questions. The film retains Shakespeare’s formulation of the fraternal conflict within the York family as a game of thrones rather than anything involving mass politics. For myself, I take it more as a symbol appropriate for the period depicted. In our day, tyrants are fascists, not monarchs, and so the imagery must change accordingly. (Some credit should be given to the filmmakers for not taking the easy way out with Nazis and going instead for the British Union of Fascists.)
However, while Richard maintains his evil ways to the bloody end, there are moments of sympathy. While McKellen is so nimble that it is easy to forget Richard’s deformities, there are moments of intimacy and pain – a withered arm being massaged, a child climbing on a twisted back – that show Richard at his most pitiful, even if his reaction to is always to turn back into himself and continue plotting. Almost no one ever has a kind word for him, calling him some manner of “hedgehog,” “boar,” or “bottled spider,” prompting to side with Richard against our bitter instincts. He’s a bastard, but you can’t help but feel for the guy.
I won’t spoil the ending of this 400-plus year old story, but I will mention two things. In a lot of productions it has been traditional to depict Richard as weary and half-hearted in power, as though acquiring the throne was more the focus than the throne itself. McKellen’s Richard breaks from this tradition, playing Richard as a man, like Napoleon, who simply cannot stop himself when he has started, a man that can only roll on and on like a cannonball to his ruin. The film’s depiction of Henry (Dominic West), who eventually triumphs over Richard, is given an ambivalent. He’s every much the square-jawed war hero, but a few scenes (particularly his final one) suggest that the problem of Richard is not something that can be snuffed out with one death, but is with us always.
Sadly, despite the critical reputation of this film and the phenomenal performances throughout, it is deeply difficult to get ahold of a copy at a reasonable price in North America. Mine is an old DVD I found at a used movie store, and I was phenomenally lucky to find it there. There are more recent pressings of both DVD and Blu-Ray in Europe, but that does us North Americans little good.