Customer Review

11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars No discontent in this production, 5 July 2005
This review is from: Richard III [DVD] [1996] (DVD)
Ian McKellan played Richard III on the stage in London, then touring the world, under Richard Eyre's direction and the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain's auspices. Like many great productions of Richard III in the past, there was an anticlimactic sense about things when the lengthy run ended - McKellan compares his production (justifiably) to those of Henry Irving and David Garrick, but longs for the lasting legacy of Laurence Olivier, who translated his successful stage production into a lasting cinematic production. Richard Eyre issued the challenge to McKellan to produce a screenplay, which he did, in collaboration with Richard Loncraine. Loncraine then produced the film, again starring Ian McKellan as Richard III, updated into a National-Socialist timeframe.
It is true that Shakespeare is the 'author' of Richard III - of course, much of Shakespeare's authoring involved heavy borrowing, redaction and crafting. This is not to take anything away from Shakespeare's achievement, but rather to prove the adage 'good writers borrow from others; great writers steal from them outright'. However, every production of a Shakespeare play requires modification of some sort; bringing Shakespeare productions to the screen (indeed, bringing any stage-play to the screen) requires a recrafting to suit the medium. McKellan and Loncraine rearranged and edited expertly the play to suit a film.
Richard III has been an enigmatic and controversial character - Shakespeare's play is probably more in keeping with Tudor propaganda against Richard III (from whom they took the throne) rather than actual history; Richard's malformed physical form and malicious character may be fictions, or at least great exaggerations, designed to serve the purpose of bolstering Tudor legitimacy. McKellan points out (a theory not unique to him, by any means) that the Tudors had as much to gain from the disappearance of the princes in the tower as Richard himself; had they survived and been recognised as heirs of the throne, Tudor legitimacy would have been much less credible.
McKellan's Richard has disability physically, but the real deformity is of the will and the spirit. The Prussian-inspired military garb of this production hints at but also hides his physical disability for the most part. There is no real hump, stammer or limp that many portrayals of Richard might have.
McKellan describes the decision to update the tale of Richard III into more modern times as one to provide clarity of narrative. Indeed, for this production, Richard is seen as a storm-trooper similar to the militant cadres of Germany in the 1930; his grasp for power is very similar in tone to the rise to dictatorship of any number of fascist leaders, but the Nuremberg-Rally character of Richard's accession leaves little doubt as to the parallel. On stage and screen, in a drama such as these, people need to be readily identified in their roles; Elizabethan dress (or earlier dress) is confusing to the modern eye, but the difference between costuming for military, aristocracy, etc. in the modern time is readily identifiable. The exact historical situation is not directly relevant - given that Richard III already takes liberties with the actual history of the time, why not take more in the name of accessibility to the audience?
Richard III had to be cut to make it on the screen, in order to be turned into a visual rather than auditory experience, given the sensibilities of modern cinema-goers. McKellan and Loncraine originally wanted to film around the Houses of Parliament, but for various political reasons that idea was quashed. They used the Parliament building in Budapest, modeled after the Westminster building, and did so to great effect.
McKellan certainly steals the show here, but there are worthwhile briefer performances by the late Nigel Hawthorne, Robert Downey Jr., John Wood, and Annette Bening. Maggie Smith, as the mother of Edward IV and Richard III, turns in a stunning performance as usual, nearly upstaging the other actors in every scene in which she appears.
The music is serviceable, useful as a backdrop but never really stands out. This is appropriate to Shakespeare, even up-dated, 'postmodern' Shakespeare, in which the play's the thing. The visuals help to pull the story along, but in true Shakepearean mode, the dialogue and acting are the driving forces here, and they succeed brilliantly.
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