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Richard III (1996)
Director: Richard Loncraine

review by Tony Lee

An affected but wholly successful revision of Shakespeare's play, this tale of royal intrigue and one man's lust for the power of the British throne (filmed 40 years earlier by Laurence Olivier) is updated from 15th century costume drama to 1930s' political thriller. Ian McKellen (who co-wrote the screenplay with director Loncraine) attacks the title role with such great relish in the character's extreme villainy that I almost began to doubt his sanity. He's the slimy fascist nightmare of every post-war, alternative-history SF. Richard of Gloucester dreams, schemes and murders his way to the top in a dark never-netherworld so richly imagined, and painstakingly realised in every detail (from costumes to technology, settings and architecture), that even such normally unsettling narrative devices as having McKellen himself serve as the film's narrator and commentator instantly suited this troubled world, and I painlessly forgot that this was a determinedly shocking story of dystopia in the making.
   Unlike that other recent filmic update of the Bard's work, Romeo + Juliet, the Shakespearean language of Richard III is far easier to accept and doesn't clash with the visuals or action. For this affect, the unusual, transatlantic cast deserve full credit, as (apart from Robert Downey Jr as the doomed Rivers) they inhabit their roles with such grace that specific dialogue isn't distracting at all. Maggie Smith is particularly watchable for the scene in which she chastises her evil son. Also, I'm not sure if that really was Kristen Scott-Thomas (as Lady Anne) in her deathbed scene or a realistic waxwork, but if so she plays a corpse so well that not a blink or twitch disturbs her open eyed serenity when the spider crawls across her face.
   From the wordless first scene in which a tank brutally interrupts the royal evening meal, to Richard's knowingly humoured cry of "My kingdom for a horse!" when his jeep lurches into a ditch in the frantic attempt to escape from the army of his righteous enemy, Richard III is a marvellous feast of words and images.
previously published online, VideoVista #21
Richard III
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