A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 196 – Richard III (1995)

Richard III (1995) – September 12th, 2010

Would you believe that with all the Shakespeare I’ve read and seen and studied and written about, I’ve never had any contact with Richard III aside from the passing mention in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged)? I’m not sure how I’ve passed it by in all the literature classes I’ve taken, but there it is. I know it’s a history and a rather nasty one. I’ve read the Henry plays (IV, V and all three parts of VI), so I’ve got a good deal of the background. And yet this is all new to me.

Really, we should have held off on this one until Tuesday night. We had plenty of time tonight and, knowing this is a long play and working off of last night’s movie, Andy was very enthusiastic about putting this in tonight. And then I checked the running time and found it’s under an hour and a half by a good deal. Damn. It’s rather put me off my game tonight, which is incredibly frustrating, mostly because this movie deserves true attention. It’s an interesting interpretation and an excellent performance with an impressive cast. So I wish I’d been more in the mood for it tonight. I’ll do what I can, regardless.

Once more we have Ian McKellen in the starring role, but this performance is far and away a different creature from the 1978 Macbeth. There are similarities in the plots, certainly. Both Macbeth and Richard III would like the throne. Both do away with those who stand between themselves and the crown. Both are ambitious. But Richard comes across as more ruthless and almost completely devoid of guilt until the very end when it manifests as paranoia. A lot of the pathos in Macbeth comes from the tolls that Macbeth’s and Lady Macbeth’s actions take on their emotions and mental states. They break down completely, and last night’s performance showed those breakdowns in intimate and horrific detail. Richard III, on the other hand, needs no prompting to instigate his crimes. He has cold enough blood to take some of his more hideous acts in good humor, smirking about such things as his plans to marry Princess Elizabeth after having her younger brothers imprisoned and murdered. It’s a very interesting contrast, especially seeing the same actor in the two roles.

The other big difference between the two productions is the style. Where last night’s was a minimalist performance with only the actors and some simple costumes and props and an unclear time period, tonight’s is a thoroughly realized alternate 1930s England. The time period is clear through some incredibly gorgeous sets, costumes, hair styles and music, and the alternative universe aspect is shown through the obviously fascist-themed military uniforms and trappings of the kingdom. Once Richard comes into power, the visuals of his party are an obvious reference to Nazi Germany. Even the architecture is altered to a more stark look, with Bankside Power Station standing in for the Tower of London and similar other replacements. It all makes for a very rich setting that is at once historically recognizable and not of our world. A fitting alteration for a theatrical adaptation of real historical events.

I do enjoy seeing Shakespeare done by an excellent cast. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve seen some poorly done Shakespeare before. Most notably, when I spent a few weeks in England while I was in high school I saw an unfortunate version of The Merchant of Venice performed by a boys’ school. They’d chosen to place it in the 1980s and all of the boys in the cast had given themselves fake tans and adopted horrible Cockney accents. We did not stay through the performance. So it’s nice to see a truly excellent cast perform a modernized version of a play and do such an amazing job. I liked the decision to make Queen Elizabeth and her family American and was amused to see Robert Downey Jr. as her brother, playing what appeared to be an ancestor to Tony Stark. Maggie Smith delivered some really impressive lines as Richard’s mother and Kristin Scott Thomas did a wonderful job with a difficult role as Lady Anne, whose husband is murdered by Richard and who later marries him and falls into a haze of self-loathing. And then there is a host of familiar faces as the dukes and lords and knights around Richard. Tim McInnerny, Nigel Hawthorne, Jim Broadbent, Edward Hardwicke and Bill Patterson (whom I am so proud of myself for recognizing) being the ones who come immediately to mind. All of them truly inhabit their roles and the time period at the same time, lending real believability to it all.

Reading about this movie, I saw that it was based on a stage production Ian McKellen starred in and that he did a good deal of the adaptation. There are also a lot of clever little nods to the time period used and to Shakespeare (the band in the opening have music stands that read WS for William Shakespeare, for example). Of course, if Ian McKellen was deeply involved with it all, then I’m not surprised. He is an amazing and engaging actor who certainly knows the Bard well. The whole conceit of the movie is an interesting one, and while I’m sure a lot was cut out, given the length of the movie, the story itself flows quite well. It’s not at all difficult to follow and I credit Ian McKellen with making it all enjoyable. In his hands, Richard is utterly loathsome, but at the same time fascinating to watch. So in conclusion, we need more Ian McKellen movies.

September 12, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | 2 Comments

Richard III (1995)

September 12, 2010

Richard III

I chose to put this movie in tonight because it is such a stark contrast to the production we watched yesterday. In almost every regard it is entirely different. Where the version of Macbeth we watched yesterday was almost unabridged this adaptation of the Shakespeare is severely truncated. Yesterday’s production was spare with no sets and hardly any props, whereas this is an enormous and lush affair with a huge cast, location shots, complex sets and even special effects.

It’s also fun to contrast the roles that Ian McKellen plays in the two films. Both Macbeth and Richard III are tales of a man who murders his way to a throne, but they are very different in temperament. Macbeth is a man driven, maddened by the deeds that won him the crown. That was the appeal of the movie we watched yesterday: that Ian McKellen so wonderfully captured that madness and that drive. In tonight’s movie however he portrays Richard III, who is a wholly unapologetic villain.

Right from the beginning Richard is bent only on death and chaos. His “Now is the winter of our discontent” monologue is all about how he is a man ill suited to peace, so he will endeavour to end peace for everybody he knows. There is one scene late in the film where he wakes from a nightmare, but his concern is more that his plots will have come to nothing and his reign as king is threatened. He never seems to tire of the bloodletting, even when he commands the murder of his young nephews.

Ian clearly relishes the chance to play such a villain. He has distilled the original play to contain only the most bloodthirsty and horrible parts. (Ian McKellen shares a screenplay credit for the adaptation, so it’s not just his performance but the very script itself that he uses to craft the character.) He speaks often directly to the camera with a wink and an uneven smile. Really this is the charm of the whole movie. The way Richard is played implies that in his mind he is the hero of the movie. He’s slimy, creepy and underhanded and well aware of it, but he takes delight in the mayhem he creates. Clearly he thinks himself far more clever than everybody around him, taking a special delight in wooing the women he most wrongs. It’s the sparkle in his shifty eye that makes the movie fun to watch, right to its very end.

The other spectacular thing about this movie is the lush art design. The concept behind the adaptation is that the whole play has been transposed to the nineteen thirties. As Richard rises to power an increasingly fascist look comes to the kingdom, right up to a scene which borrows strongly from the aesthetic of Hitler’s Germany. The music too is borrowed from that time period. The costumes and sets are elaborate and impressive. And the entire production concludes with a battle scene using tanks and jeeps, smoke pots, squibs and pyrotechnics. It’s not necessarily an epic battle scene on a Lord of the Rings scale, but it’s still an extreme contrast to the black box of what we watched yesterday.

If pressed I think I would have to say that I prefer the 1978 Macbeth we watched yesterday. This movie is far more visually arresting, but it doesn’t have the emotional impact. The way that is distills the play down to just its bare bones (something we’ll talk about again when we reach Titus) and the way it winks at the viewer leaves it feeling more Hollywood in its nature. The performances are all great, but they don’t haunt you and stay in your brain the way that those in yesterday’s movie did. Over brunch this morning Amanda and I talked about how that version of Macbeth got inside your head and stayed with you. I enjoy this movie, and Ian McKellen’s performance in particular, but it doesn’t resonate in the same way.

September 12, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment