Wednesday 4 May 2016

Richard III (1995)

 (The following, in a slightly shorter form, was originally written as a programme note for a screening of the film at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, on 28th April 2016.)
‘Playful’ is an unlikely word with which to describe a Shakespeare film, especially one in which the protagonist is a multiple murderer, but here it seems appropriate.  A lot of the best film adaptations of Shakespeare were the result of an existing stage performance meeting up with a specifically cinematic sensibility.  Often (Olivier, Welles), the stage and film specialists were contained in the same body; here, they're two people: Ian McKellen, repeating a role he played at the National Theatre in 1992, and joined forces with film and TV veteran (also, incidentally, the inventor of the executive toy Newton's Cradle) Richard Loncraine.
Like the stage production, directed by Richard Eyre, the film locates the action in an alternative British 1930s, with Richard evoking the Fascist leader Oswald Mosley, or an imaginary member of the House of Windsor, a psychopathic third brother for a womanizing Edward and an introverted George.  McKellen, adding another to his portrayals of Shakespeare’s peacetime soldiers (he's also played Macbeth, Coriolanus, and Iago) de-emphasises the character’s physical disability; taking a cue from his self-reference as ‘scarce half made-up’, he gives Richard a weakened left side.  This Richard’s malevolence comes not from his physique, but from people’s reactions to it; he learnt to hate from his Queen Mary-like mother (Maggie Smith).
The film adds the directorial skills of Richard Loncraine – his debut Slade in Flame (1975) is arguably the best rock movie ever made by a British director  (Richard Lester is an American).   Loncraine, neither a Shakespearean nor a theatregoer, is responsible for some of the film’s most striking visual sequences, such as the death of Robert Downey Jnr’s Earl Rivers, which uses the same method as that of Kevin Bacon in Friday the 13th (1980).
The film version develops the period setting.  In Shakespeare (and history) the Woodvilles, Edward IV’s in-laws, are outsiders to the London court: McKellen and Loncraine wittily reimagine them as American, with Annette Bening’s Elizabeth inevitably suggesting Wallis Simpson.  At times the parallels are more international: Jim Broadbent’s Buckingham, with his Himmler glasses and Goering smile, puts us in the milieu of Hitler, with whom this Richard shares a sweet tooth and a fondness for early morning meetings.
McKellen and Loncraine’s method is epitomized in the opening sequence.  A small budget is used skillfully, with the Wars of the Roses evoked by a single interior set (recycled from a BBC period drama).  Richard is introduced in a gas mask, his heavy breathing providing a subliminal introduction to the iambic pentameter.  McKellen had originally intended to introduce this through the footsteps of the fleeing soldiers, but discovered (as others have pointed out) that it's quite hard to run in iambics.  I once mentioned this in a seminar, and one student suggested that he could have achieved it if Richard had shot one of them in the leg.

A jazz song, with lyrics by Christopher Marlowe, and played by a jazz band with 'WS' on their music stands, takes us into the world of Dennis Potter (Loncraine directed Blade on the Feather on television and Brimstone and Treacle on film), as the characters’ relationships and attitudes are set up in a series of visual vignettes, so that we know who everybody is before the first ‘Now’ of Richard’s opening speech. 
McKellen recasts this speech as a public oration – again, easing in an audience unused to the formal language - before switching to a gents’ toilet, where Richard goes into soliloquy, catching sight of the camera (and therefore, the audience) in a mirror.  Here, McKellen’s performance echoes that of Laurence Olivier, whose 1955 Richard had a similarly flirtatious relationship with the camera, at one point even beckoning it closer.  (Loncraine also nods towards that film in his casting: the Vicar of Bray-like Lord Stanley is played by Edward Hardwicke, whose father Sir Cedric was Olivier's Edward IV.)
At times, the Shakespeare film that this most resembles is Theatre of Blood ; both feature a series of imaginative deaths, and a charismatic, role-playing protagonist.  There are coincidences of casting; Vincent Price played both Clarence and Richard in the two films of Tower of London (1939 and 1962), a horror-fied version of the Shakespeare play, while Jim Broadbent took over Price's role in the stage version of Theatre of Blood.  Both films also use an eclectic collection of London locations.  Loncraine made an early decision not to use iconic buildings like Buckingham Place and Downing Street, so the film takes place in an alternative geography of decayed industrial and imperial grandeur – Battersea Power Station, St. Pancras Chambers (also the location, around the same time, of the Spice Girls’ Wannabe’ video), and Strawberry Hill House, home of the Gothic novelist Horace Walpole. 

Like Theatre of Blood’s Edmund Lionheart, this Richard dies in a conflagration and Lucifer-like fall, with Loncraine adding an Al Jolson song that echoes James Cagney’s dying cry of ‘Top of the world, ma!’ from White Heat (1949).  As Richmond takes over the throne (and Richard’s relationship with the camera), the film reminds us of the time of its making, towards the end of the John Major government, and during the rise of Tony Blair; if the story began with a winter of discontent, it ends with us questioning whether, under the new regime, things really can only get better.

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