It’s about 10 minutes into Richard Loncraine’s Richard III (1995) before we hear any kind of substantive spoken words. And it’s only then – after a telegram, a tank busting into an ostensible bunker, and the murder of a royal by someone donning a gas mask – that Loncraine reveals his post-modern, factiously fascist 1930 Britain adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play to be exactly that. It’s a rather ambitious gamble: a clever ruse to lull the audience into thinking the film is just another, if not dystopian, then historical horror story.
Ian McKellan’s virtuosic recitation of Richard III of England’s monologue (“Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious by this sun of York.”) feels like those automatic seatbelts or restraining systems on rollercoasters. His soliloquy, which begins as a speech to the public at a lavish gala, is continued in the bathroom where he reflects on his ugly visage and deformed body. In this iteration, based on the successful production by the Royal National Theatre directed by Richard Eyre, Richard III
is still a hunch back: his arm is still unusable, and while Ian McKellan might be, perhaps, slightly more conventionally attractive than is usually imagined of the character, there’s still the strong impression that he is grotesque inside and out.
But what’s crucial to this version is that McKellan has charm. The slight curl of his lip as his tongue dances on the alliteration of the language, the smirk he gives to his audience, and to the camera, during the soliloquy. The evil he is about to manifest and use seems perfectly understandable because there’s a bizarrely appealing quality to him.
Another gamble taken by both Loncraine and screenwriter McKellan, is to break the fourth wall: comparatively easy to do on stage, there’s a certain level of trust that one must have with a film audience that’s rather hard to gain without breaking the suspension of disbelief. But with such a conniving character as Richard III, it makes sense to see him as this unreliable narrator of events.
Richard III’s period cultural roots are rather cleverly laid out throughout the film, with Lady Anne’s (Kristen Scott Thomas) first appearance on the screen evocative of the grand dames of the silver screen, like an Ingrid Bergman or Marlene Dietrich: a dark coat and a fur draped around her, a hat partially obscuring her face, and the morgue she walks through smoky and opaque. A nice nod to the formal expressionism that was to usher in film noir in the ‘40s, and appropriate given Richard III’s unapologetic villainy and, so to speak, antiheroism.
The rather diabolical ascension to the throne feels particularly unpleasant when you can hear the din of the cheering crowd juxtaposed against the smug face of McKellan and the worried faces of everyone else. Interestingly, the film need not be evocative of classical royal barbarians, instead intentionally opting for Richard to be reminiscent of iconic political figures, invariably savage and/or charming: Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Josef Stalin, Winston Churchill. (Certain shots even recall Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will.) They, too, must have at least peripheral familiarity with the tale of Machiavellian cunning and political intrigue, if not explicitly using that as a source text for technique and strategy during their respective reigns and rules in offices.
The fourth wall, then, seems to be a bit of a political statement. With Richard III appropriated to a setting where the audience is partially acquainted with the political machinations of the period— making the point that the techniques haven’t much changed since then – the sheer honesty of Richard’s cunning is unsettlingly refreshing. Sure, it works as a form of dramatic irony, he confiding in the audience and not the people around him, but there’s a subtle wish underlining those sequences: If only the politicians we know to be corrupt and fallen could be so forthright with their motivations.
As blood continues to fall from Richard’s enemies and bodies continue to pile up, one wonders what a contemporary look at Richard Graves’s historical novel I, Claudius would look like. Similarly, the tale of royals manipulating, sleeping, and killing one another off to rule over others, it’s told, primarily, from the perspective of an outsider and an observer. One who, to invoke the words of Christopher Nolan’s version of Harvey Dent, “Lives long enough to see himself become the villain.” Though, it’s clear that the oft cited quote “power corrupts absolutely” need not apply to Richard III, as, from the opening of the film, we understand that power is just the drug that exacerbates his corruption.
Ralph Fiennes adaptation of Coriolanus is another film that looks at the lust for power, within the frame of masculinity, and sets it in a recognizable time of war: this time a bit of an ambiguous Middle Eastern territory. Yet, Gulf War or WWII, the effects are just as powerful: these men manage to brew storms all by themselves.
Richard III is available on a limited edition Blu-ray release from Twilight Time. Features on the release are sparse and include an isolated score track and the original theatrical trailer which can be viewed below: