Shakespeare 450: Richard III (1995) - DVD Review

2014 marks what would have been William Shakespeare's 450th birthday. In celebration of this (and being something of a Shakespeare nut) Ben intends to spend the year taking in as many Shakespeare films as he can - from old favourites to new interpretations and everything in between.

'Redefines Richard as a fresh and enigmatic anti-hero compared to cinematic versions of him seen before'.

Of the three main genres Shakespeare mainly wrote within, the histories remain the least popular on film when compared to his tragedies and comedies. Maybe it’s the fact that these plays are by definition rooted in a particular point in the past, making it more difficult to relate them to a modern audience; or perhaps it’s the story arc which exists across many of them, potentially presenting greater problems than a tragedy or comedy in crafting a discrete cinematic production which doesn’t rely on audience knowledge of other works. The skillful handling of these issues within Richard Loncraine’s Richard III therefore goes a long way to making it the successful and enjoyable film it is.

Choosing to set his version of the play in an alternate version of 1930s Britain affords Loncraine a wealth of creative opportunities in his adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, most of which he grasps firmly with both hands. The way in which the fictitious Britain is constructed feels consistently polished and meticulously realised. It’s familiar and yet oddly unsettling, especially as Richard’s (Ian McKellen) rise to power is punctuated more and more overtly with Nazi-esque regalia. Loncraine’s use of imagery drawn from the likes of Triumph Of The Will and other Nazi propaganda films of the 1930s is superb, redefining Richard as a fresh and enigmatic anti-hero compared to cinematic versions of him seen before.

McKellen in the title role is deliciously Machiavellian, not once putting a foot wrong and making Richard a slimy yet seductive guide through his own nefarious deeds. Loncraine surrounds McKellen with a host of fine British talent with the likes of Nigel Hawthorne, Jim Broadbent and Maggie Smith all excellent in support. The more unlikely casting of the likes of Robert Downey Jr. and Annette Bening - both known at the time of release as purely Hollywood names - works well, with both actors taking to Shakespearean performance naturally and enjoyably.

Loncraine’s main issues come from the cuts and edits from Shakespeare’s original script. Being one of the Bard’s longest plays, Richard III has regularly been a candidate for streamlining on both stage and screen. The film’s abbreviated running time of just over 100 minutes means some of the script changes here are brutal: the character of Rivers (Downey Jr.), for example, incorporates lines and actions from three other characters whose roles have been excised. It’s an unenviable task, and one Loncraine and McKellen as screenwriters largely achieve pleasingly; there are however some characters whose screen time is a little too reduced to have a significant impact, as well as a handful of reattributed lines which don’t sit completely comfortably.

This is, however, a film which does far more right than wrong, and which is likely to please both Shakespearean enthusiasts and those less well acquainted with the Bard's work. Moreover, it’s a film which proves that the histories can be successfully brought to the big screen in a modern, relevant and thoroughly entertaining way.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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