Far from a simple adaptation of Shakspeare’s bloody play, Loncraine’s Richard III is a complex, alternate-universe retelling of the mad battle for power. The film was written by lead actor Ian McKellen while he was touring with the play, and he picked up an impressive cast on the cheap during his tour. Only half of the original text of the play is used, but there is no jarring transition between stage and screen, nor (impressively) between Shakespeare’s words and McKellen’s.
Scheming King Richard comes to power in an alternate-universe fascist England in the 20th century (what appears to be the 1930s). The setting is soaked in symbols of the Third Reich and synthesizes recycled Nazi costumes (minus the swastikas) with period British and American garb. The story is classic: Richard takes the throne through murder (including a shocking and hilarious offing of a young Robert Downey Jr.) and manipulation, devastating the Queen’s family for a brief and violent reign. Made for a paltry £5 million, the film is visually rich, surprisingly tense and devilishly clever.
There are admirable performances all around, but McKellen’s Richard is the film’s lightning bolt. McKellen reportedly missed the nomination for Best Actor by two votes (and Nigel Hawthorne, here playing the Duke of Clarence, was nominated instead for The Madness of King George), which is a pity considering the strength of the performance. McKellen exudes reptilian charm, a sort of sinister, sinking evil that infects the world around him. As the family collapses in upon itself, the film chronicles every riveting power play and political assassination without venturing into the trite or predictable. That in itself is a small miracle for such a well-known story, and McKellen and Loncraine’s ability to breathe fire into a Shakespeare play is worth the film’s economical 104 minute run time.
Richard III is currently available on Netflix Instant Queue.
Britta R. Moline 2/4/12