Friday, 26 April 2013

Richard III on the Screen: 
Olivier (1955), McKellen (1995), Pacino (1996)


NB. All lines are indicated according to the Penguin Shakespeare edition.



Laurence Olivier – Richard III
Ralph Richardson – Buckingham
Lady Anne – Claire Bloom
Mary Kerridge – Queen Elizabeth
John Gielgud – Clarence
Alec Clunes – Hastings
Stanley Baker – Richmond
Clive Morton – Rivers

Directed by Laurence Olivier.
Adapted by Laurence Olivier (uncredited), Colley Cibber and David Garrick.
Colour. 161 min. 


Richard III (1955), starring Laurence Olivier in the title role and directed by him, has come to be regarded as a classic, even though it appears to be less critically acclaimed than his Hamlet (1948) or Henry V (1944). As it might be expected, the movie is a traditional adaptation, closer to filmed theatre production than to cinema, with historical sets and costumes. It's a sumptuous affair, if a little artificial by our modern and very spoiled standards, shot in vivid Technicolor.

The cuts are the usual ones – Margaret, citizens, etc. – and not very extensive in comparison with other versions. There are, indeed, some charming additions, most notably the beginning with the coronation of Edward IV which gives you an excellent opportunity to get introduced visually to the King, the Queen and the princes. There are also several other substantial re-arrangements. The most imaginative of these is the splitting of the ''wooing scene'' into two parts, with Anne twice spitting on Richard's face and his giving her two passionate kisses in the end. On the whole, the changes are ingeniously done; the movie flows as smoothly as does the play.

Additional confusion when comparing the play with the movie may come from the fact that Olivier reportedly used, not just wordless scenes from other plays (such as the opening one which comes from Henry VI, Part III), but even some lines not by Shakespeare at all, such as interpolations by Colley Cibber and David Garrick (both duly credited). Never mind that. On its own, the movie suffers from no structural deficiencies.

Laurence Olivier as Richard, Duke of Gloucester (Blu-ray)
Laurence Olivier as Richard, Duke of Gloucester  (Blu-ray)

Olivier in the title role is unforgettable. The straight, black hair; the large, well-shaped nose; the sly look in the eyes; the brisk movements; the suave gestures: everything seems to fit like the pieces of a puzzle. He delivers the text in a curiously high-pitched, not very pleasant voice, and often rather fast, but nonetheless very fluently, with perfect diction, superb confidence and many subtle inflections. His direction is equally fine, my only qualms being the scarcity of close-ups and the too static presentation of some scenes. That said, there are some imaginative angles that work almost like flashbacks (e.g. during Richard's opening soliloquy which is also cut into several pieces to a great effect) and a great deal of effective work with lights and shadows.

Laurence Olivier as Richard, Duke of Gloucester
Great moments abound. There are hardly any others. For example, note the killer look to the younger prince when he makes a joke about Richard's deformed shoulder, or his malevolent face, only half lit, when he says that his kingdom ''stands on brittle glass''. A particular favourite of mine is Richard's demonstrating to Tyrrel how to use pillow as a most effective weapon. Another innovation that fits the play like a glove occurs after the charade with the Lord Mayor and the crowd. Here Richard comes down by the bell rope and, though not yet a king, offers his hand to (the unpleasantly surprised) Buckingham to kiss, and kneel. This also makes the later fall-out between them somewhat more credible. The final monologue is unfortunately badly cut, but Richard's face during the nightmares is positively scary.

The supporting cast boasts at least two other Shakespearean legends: John Gielgud (Clarence) and Ralph Richardson (Buckingham). The latter is especially memorable as the cunning master of the court intrigue, but the former is a little stilted (but Clarence is not a very grateful part anyway). Claire Bloom (Anne) and Mary Kerridge (Elizabeth) are serviceable rather than memorable.

All in all, a great way to start your video exploration of Richard III. The other two versions, whatever their merits, are much more abridged and take much bigger liberties with the original.


Richard III (1995)

Ian McKellen – Richard III
Jim Broadbent – Buckingham
Kristin Scott Thomas – Lady Anne
Maggie Smith - Duchess of York
Annette Bening – Queen Elizabeth
Nigel Hawthorne – Clarence
Jim Carter – Hastings
Dominic West – Richmond
Robert Downy Jr. – Rivers

Directed by Richard Loncraine.
Adapted by Ian McKellen and Richard Loncraine.
Colour. 104 min.


Richard III (1995), directed by Richard Loncraine and with Ian McKellen in the title role, transports you from fifteenth century England to a fictional place that looks, and sounds, very much like England from the 1930s. Appropriately, Richard is a Nazified maniac who enters into a civil war with tanks and bombs. The only difference is that his huge red flags, instead of swastika, have, of course, a boar.

Visually the movie is spectacular, with lavish sets and costumes that make for a great atmosphere, no expense spared. It's a little too graphic at some places, but I daresay this fits the plot very well. Clarence's throat is cut in his bathtub, Rivers is stabbed through while entertaining a lady in the bed, the young princes are suffocated with handkerchief, Hastings is hanged, Buckingham strangled: all this more or less ''onstage''. Richard topped them all by throwing himself from a high building into a great fire below, smiling all the time; a little overblown but not entirely inappropriate solution. The ''wooing'' scene takes place in the morgue, around the naked body of Edward, shot in the chest and in the head by Richard in the very beginning of the movie. Altogether harrowing yet haunting spectacle.

Unfortunately the original is very substantially cut; at least half of it is missing, but the rest is very cleverly arranged. I understand it was McKellen himself who did the job, and since he had reportedly played the part (nearly) complete on stage many times before, it is no wonder that he achieved excellent continuity and admirable preservation of the spirit. The movie is extremely fast-paced, it runs for only about 100 minutes or so, and makes a most effective use of modern (for the 1930s) technology. There are also some smart changes in the order and the nature of the events, none of them really detrimental. For example, Richard meets Tyrrel in the beginning and later turns him into his most trusted hired killer. He appears as one of the two murderers of Clarence and then continues to remove human obstacles from Richard's way to the top.

Ian McKellen as Richard, Duke of Gloucester
Not all cuts or changes are commendable, though. Inserting Richmond's marriage to Elizabeth (not the ex-queen; her daughter) is both unnecessary and unconvincing. It is mentioned as arranged but it never happens in the play, rightly so. Even more misguided is the showing of Richmond and Elizabeth naked in bed, apparently having spent their first night together right before the final battle. There are also some lines that are cut very badly indeed. For instance, ''He hath no friends but what are friends for fear, / Which in his dearest need will fly from him'' (V.2.20-21) has, for some obscure reason, been reduced merely to ''He hath no friends''. No matter. These are small quibbles in an otherwise clever and exhilarating adaptation.

The cast is quite impressive. Ian McKellen steals the show completely. 'Tis a pity that such a great actor is mostly known worldwide from movies like The Lord of the Rings and The Da Vinci Code. He plays a sinister Richard not easily forgotten. Most of his soliloquies, or what's left of them, he delivers directly to the camera (as did Olivier), and there's nothing better to put you in Richard's confidence. One of the movie's most unorthodox touches is to make the beginning of ''Now is the winter of our discontent'' a public speech during a lavish royal party. The rest of it, very ingeniously, takes place in the toilet.

For Ian McKellen alone the movie is very much worth seeing. The only unconvincing part is ''A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!'' which Richard shouts in a military jeep in the middle of explosions and roaring machine guns. The line, notwithstanding its fame, should have been omitted. Interestingly, these are not Richard's last words. Instead, before flying off the edge, he says these two lines which occur a little earlier in the play:

March on, join bravely, let us to't pell-mell;
If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell.
[V.3.313-4.]

The rest of the cast includes some great hits and some near misses. Annette Bening plays a Queen Elizabeth not without some weak moments, but she is especially fine in the powerful last scene with Richard. Robert Downey Jr. is pretty dull as the bohemian and lecherous Rivers, a radical but convincing departure from Shakespeare. Kristin Scott Thomas does a thoroughly mediocre job as Lady Anne, sufficiently mentally unstable to do what she did and end as a drug addict. Maggie Smith is excellent as the Duchess (Margaret is of course completely omitted), but Jim Broadbent (Buckingham) and Jim Carter (Hastings) are rather stodgy, quite overshadowed by McKellen.

The movie is not lacking in insightful moments that bring something like revelation to the text. Perhaps my favourite example, apart from McKellen's solo passages, are the short but good laugh that Richard and Buckingham had after the farce they played for the Lord Mayor. It's one of the most amusing scenes in the play (III.5.) and it's terrific to see it acted so marvellous over the top. Ironically, it led straight to Richard's being elected King in a spectacle that Adolf would have relished.

Ian McKellen as Richard III
Another very perceptive touch is Richard's speaking to the camera his line ''I thank my God for my humility!'' in the end of the scene where he ostensibly declares his good intentions towards everybody. In the play (II.1.74) the line is not marked to be spoken ''aside'' but this fits the scene to perfection. It's also in line with Richard's passion for mockery and his fierce delight in his own artistic skills. One almost expects him to say something like ''I'd like to thank the Academy''.

If you are not afraid of controversial adaptations, give this one a try. You might be pleasantly surprised.


Looking for Richard (1996)

Al Pacino – Richard III/Himself
Kevin Spacey – Buckingham/Himself
Winona Ryder – Lady Anne/Herself
Penelope Allen – Queen Elizabeth/Himself
Alec Baldwin – Clarence/Himself
Kevin Conway – Hastings/Himself
Aidan Quinn – Richmond
Madison Arnold – Rivers/Himslef
Estelle Parsons – Margaret

Directed by Al Pacino.
Adapted by Al Pacino and Frederick Kimball.
Colour. 112 min.


Looking for Richard (1996) is an entirely different stuff than all previous movies. It's a kind of documentary about a stage production of the play, starring Al Pacino in the title role. The movie is his debut as a director.

It's a strange mixture, this film. There are only several excerpts from the play but they include the most important ones: the opening soliloquy, the ''wooing'' scene, the murder of Clarence, the fall-out with Buckingham, the hiring of Tyrrel, Richard's nightmare, the final battle and his death. So, in fact, this version is not so much more abridged than the Loncraine-McKellen one.

In between there are fascinating outtakes, rehearsals, readings around the table, discussions about casting, characters, plot and historical background. It's all very informal and amusing, often shot in a deliberately amateurish manner and edited not without a sense of fun. As a special bonus, there are even some interviews with people from the streets (in New York?) apparently taken by Pacino himself. Sadly, but hardly unexpectedly, most of them knew Shakespeare by name only and had never heard of Richard III at all. There are also several interviews, much too short unfortunately, with renowned Shakespearean actors from the other side of the Atlantic such as John Gielgud, Derek Jacobi and Kenneth Branagh.

For Pacino fans, of which I am one, it's a compelling opportunity to see the man who played Michael Corleone and Tony Montana (excellent preparation for Richard!) in a somewhat unusual light. He frankly admits that he doesn't quite know why they (he and some of his friends) are doing this movie at all, but it's been a dream of his to show how he feels about Shakespeare and they'll give it a try. I am glad they did. Pacino's performance is stellar at all fronts: delivery of the text, facial expressions, moving like a hunchback, even the direction itself. In the ''wooing'' or in the ''nightmare'' scenes he is positively mesmerising. His is a very human Richard.

Memorable moments abound and reward re-watching. One of the most compelling is the doubling of that magnificently shouted ''If'' in the scene where Richard confronts Hastings as a traitor. Had he been there, Pacino might have torn down the walls of Jericho with this voice of his. His laughter at ''I will not keep her long'' is an epitome of mockery, his final soliloquy (or what's left of it) sounds like a deeply affecting confession. Some of the explanations of the plot – by Pacino, his friends or some scholars – are also illuminating. For example, the elusive role of Mistress Shore is well explained as an important link between Edward IV and Hastings.

The supporting cast is intriguing, to say the least. Winona Ryder is hardly the best Lady Anne imaginable, but she is at least pretty enough to explain Richard's unholy desires. Alec Baldwin (Clarence), Kevin Spacey (Buckingham) and Kevin Conway (Hastings) are impressive. Penelope Allen is a little wooden as Elizabeth, but she compensates by lots of passion. Harris Yulin (Edward IV) and Estelle Parsons (Margaret, not entirely cut here) are disappointing, but no matter. The movie is worth some 110 minutes of your time, especially if you are interested in Shakespeare's Richard III. Indeed, if the play moves you, the film is a must-see.

By the way, somewhat strangely, the movie starts and ends with Prospero's words about the ''stuff as dreams are made on'' from The Tempest. The voice sounds much like Laurence Olivier's, but he is not credited anywhere, at least so far as I have noticed.

One last interesting coincidence. In Nuremberg (2000), where he plays the role of Justice Jackson, Alec Baldwin quotes in his final speech one memorable part from the ''wooing'' scene (I.2.89-90)*, trying to convince the jury that if they do not find the defendants guilty, this would mean that there had been no war and no crime.

*Richard: Say that I slew them not?
Anne: Then say they were not slain. But dead they are…

Al Pacino as Richard III
The major problem with all movie versions – most notably with McKellen's – is that they present only part of the play. Leaving aside that comparisons between both mediums can be very confusing, reducing the minor characters as well as cutting many of Richard's own lines lead to oversimplifying of the protagonist almost to the point of caricature. The main message about the evil genius who craves for power comes through well enough. But there is much more to Richard than that. Moreover, cutting some scenes down to their bare bones usually makes them look perfunctory and unconvincing. It is sometimes difficult to believe how Richard actually manages to take in some of the other characters (even when they look more cardboard than ever). If you come to such moments, have a look inside the book and you will know the truth.

That said, all three movies compensate for the butchery by supplying feasts for the eye and very insightful treatment of certain scenes.

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