Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Richard III - Movies

Catching up from our play from a few weeks ago, it's time for a run-down of Richard III movies! Richard seems to be a fairly popular subject for the screen, so I'll be breaking my reviews up into a few different categories, starting with fairly standard adaptations of the play. I'll begin with my favorite:

1. The Tragedy of Richard III (BBC, The Complete Shakespeare, 1983)

This is just the best Richard. The story is told clearly...

it's tremendously compelling, and the acting is across the board marvelous. This is the last part of the Henry IV/Richard tetralogy with linked casting that I reviewed favorably before, and there are so many smart choices. The actors playing the three York brothers are young enough to realistically match the true history, as Richard actually became king at the age of 30; they work very well together physically playing family members; Richard's disability is also played up more than in most other productions - he has a very pronounced limp, a leg brace and a visible hump.

Ron Cook is fabulous as Richard, with a very natural delivery and creepily open and friendly demeanor. I found him the scariest of all the film Richards I saw, because I could believe that he really could trick me and everyone else - smiler on the outside, murderer on the inside. (See video here.) Physically, I thought he was excellent in the role, as his short stature set him apart from others, and the fact that the other actors playing his brothers were taller also suggested the fact that he's the youngest in the family. Other excellent things in the movie that, like these choices, none of the other Richard films keyed into, was the inclusion of the mystical aspects of the play that are very clearly indicated in the text: Henry VI's dead wounds bleeding, Richard and Richmond sharing a dream, suggesting true ghostly visitations.  The depiction of Act III, scene 7, where Richard and Buckingham manipulate the citizenry into urging his kingship, is a delightfully hilarious, self-conciously theatrical moment in the film.

Also noteworthy, amongst a very strong cast, is Paul Jesson as Clarence - his scene in the tower where he relates his dream is unforgettable. There are some challenges to watching this version, of course - like all the BBC Shakespeare adaptations, the camera work is basic tv style, and no fancy special effects. The text is nearly complete, if not entirely uncut, making for quite a long production - but if you like it, it's just prolonging the joy, right?

2. Richard III (Laurence Olivier, 1955)

This is a good film, and I'm a big Laurence Olivier fan. His trick as Richard of sharing secret half-smiles with the audience is delighful, and the spectacle of the film - the bright technicolor, the armor, the horses - is very fun. Olivier's Richard wanders at will through lavish, empty palaces, lusting for a crown. His use of the textually supported shadow motif is excellent. However, I confess that though I can't quite put my finger on what didn't work for me in this film, something seemed off because I just couldn't stay awake! I tried to watch it several different times, and on each occasion every scene seemed to have a remarkably soporific effect. The final battle scene, especially, was really, really, long. I'm sorry not to be more positive, but thinking about this movie makes me feel tired.

3. Richard III (starring Ian McKellen, 1995)

I think that it's rather unfortunate that this Richard - fairly newish, big budget, big stars - is kind of the go-to film for Richard right now. It's not completely terrible, but I think it has several big problems. First, it's centered around a very specific concept - Richard as a Hitler-like character in a 1930s fascist Britain. Concept productions aren't necessarily bad, and can be very exciting and revelatory, but this one doesn't really work for me - not because it's a bad idea, but because the production seems to lavish much more time and energy on the concept than the story. Being Brit moviemakers, the period costumes, settings, locations, cars, etc., are all perfect, accurate, and beautiful - but my impression was that many of the directorial choices were centered around a feeling like "Since we spent all that money on [insert expensive car/costume/fancydress ball], by golly we're not going to waste it!"

Unfortunately, the filmmakers' decision to spend precious time in moments unrelated to specific scenes in the text - such as a 10-15 minute scene of dancing at Edward IV's inaugural ball - requires trade-offs. A LOT of the text and a good chunk of the story is cut from this film, and what is left is adapted quite a bit. The whole focus of the film seems somehow slightly off. Many of the filmakers' choices almost seem like sly insider nudge-winks to those viewers who know the play - aren't we clever to twist this around this way? An example of this is Clarence's death - in the play, he's stabbed and drowned in a vat of wine. In this movie, he's in a bathtub, and the murderers cut his throat then hold him underwater - oh look, how clever, the blood turns the water red just like wine! So they're sort of hinting at something from the play, but you would never know that unless you were familiar with the play from another source. I find this intensely irritating.

Ian McKellen's portrayal of Richard is good - he does something that I've not seen in any other production, which is accentuate a (textually supported) problem with one of Richard's hands. So not only does he limp, he also performs every task one-handed, which highlights his disability pretty well. However, even McKellen lets the viewer down at times - the dream scene at the end, just before he goes into his final battle, is a total waste of film as far as I'm concerned. Had I not been familiar with the story already, I would have had no clue what all that incomprehensible mumbling was about! Also, be aware that this film is rated R for violence and sexual content - I didn't really think it was possible to make this story that much more shocking than is indicated in the original script, but the movie makers gamely try their best.

Conclusion: if you're okay with simple production quality, you'll probably like the BBC version best. If you're more of a fan of classic Hollywood style cinema with lavish spectacle, probably Olivier would be the way to go. If you like guns, blood, and explosions, the McKellen version might be a good choice - but be aware that you're not getting the whole story.

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