The conceit of Ian McKellen’s brave and wonderfully imagined adaptation of Shakespeare’s most durable History (the Internet Movie Database lists eight versions filmed dating back to 1908!) looks to have been cribbed from Orson Welles’ 1937 Mercury Theater production of Julius Caesar, which turned Caesar into a black-shirted, Mussolini-style fascist. McKellan and director Richard Loncraine (who worked with the late playwright Dennis Potter on the underrated Brimstone and Treacle) have posited the play in a fictitious England of the 1930s (the text has thankfully not been tampered with) where a war of two families has in turn resulted in civil war, and where the seeds of fascism have taken root in Richard’s “rudely stamp’d” body.
The film begins as the York family reigns in victory over the house of Lancaster, and as King Edward’s crippled son Richard declares his commitment to eliminate everyone in the line of secession to the throne of England. Beginning by pitting his brother Clarence (the wonderful Nigel Hawthorne) against the king, and by successfully seducing the weak-willed Lady Anne (Kristin Scott Thomas), the evil Richard sets his evil plot into furious motion. Soon to fall are the brother of the American Queen Elizabeth (Annette Bening, woefully out of her league) Earl Rivers (Robert Downey, Jr., surprisingly good before he is dispatched during some kinky sex) as well as the Queen’s sons. In between eliminating most of his family members, Richard becomes a Hitler-like despot, complete with black Nazi-style uniforms and red banners emblazoned with the sign of a Boar. (Iindeed, Lord Hasting’s dream where “the boar has razed his helm” is literally interpreted here as we see Richard as a snarling Boar, and Richard and his willing assassin Tyrell are seen feeding a wild boar.) When Richard dispatches Lady Anne with plans to wed the young daughter of the Queen, the Earl of Richmond, the daughter’s fiancé, decides to take action.
In Loncraine and McKellen’s witty, inventive film, Richard’s brother, the Duke of Clarence, is murdered in a bathtub, the blood from his slit throat turning the bath water into Shake-spears’ vat of wine; Lady Anne becomes a junkie, shooting heroin into her thighs in the back of a Rolls Royce; the battle of Bosworth field is played out in an abandoned power station with tanks and machine guns blazing (Richard’s “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” is said as his Jeep stalls in the mud on the battlefield); and Richard fires at Hastings’ strafing airplane with a machine gun, looking more than a bit like William Holden in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. There’s even a clever nod to Christopher Marlowe here, as a big band singer croons lines from Marlowe’s poem The Passionate Shepherd to his Love.
As Richard, McKellen is wonderful, besting the previous gold standard in Richard portrayals – Laurence Olivier in his 1956 film. The role of Richard also carries with it a long tradition of overacting – I recall Monty Python’s skit where their “Royal Hospital for Overacting” had an entire Richard III wing – and McKellen does not disappoint. Chain smoking and registering genuine evil glee in his eyes, McKellen is a brilliantly evil Richard who truly plays the part “determined to prove a villain." As if to give Richard an even more contemporary resonance, Richard dies in a ball of flame that recalls James Cagney’s fiery demise in Raoul Walsh’s
White Heat, with Cagney’s famous “top of the world” epithet echoed here by Al Jolson crooning “Sittin’ on top of the World.” Mammy!
Loncraine and McKellen have achieved something truly noteworthy here: they have brought the Bard kicking and screaming into the pulp `90s, sparing no violence and sex, and reminding us once again that Shakespeare does indeed have much to offer a contemporary sensibility that prefers entertainment to art. Richard III is happily both.