Film Review: Richard III (1995)

“I am not made of stone”

The boldness of Shakespearean adaptation can be a car crash when it goes wrong but when it is right, as in this 1995 version of Richard III, it is utterly thrilling. From the crashing of a tank through walls and subsequent gory executions into the jaunty sway of 1930s music, Ian McKellen and Richard Loncraine’s idiosyncratic reshaping of the story, first seen at the NT in 1992, is cannily and compellingly done. And because it has been done well, one is far more inclined to grant the liberties that have been taken with the text, because they’re reasoned and reasonable.

Relocated to a parallel version of 1930s Britain in which years of civil war has bred fascism, Richard of York’s rise to power has never seemed quite so chilling as it does here. An ingenious use of British landmarks put to different use cleverly disorients the audience but never so much that it seems too far beyond belief. So Battersea Power Station becomes a coastal military base, St Pancras is substituted for Westminster, and the visuals are just stunning throughout, culminating in a genuinely breath-taking rally. 

McKellen plays down the Plantagenet’s disability and plays up his insidious villainy brilliantly, menacing throughout and so comfortable with the verse, whether spitting out orders to his henchmen or slyly inviting our complicity with his asides straight through the fourth wall. And his oiliness when wooing his way into the hearts of Kristin Scott Thomas’ substance-abusing Lady Anne or Annette Bening’s coldly furious Queen Elizabeth is expertly played, it’s a powerful showcase for him indeed and arguably one that laid the groundwork for his subsequent resurgent film career. 

And he’s supported by a stellar cast, where even the surprise additions of the likes of Robert Downey Jr (a beefed-up Rivers) don’t disappoint. Maggie Smith’s Duchess of York is scathingly great, her part enlarged too by the excision of Queen Margaret and the shifting over of some of her lines, Adrian Dunbar’s ice-cold Tyrell is a treat as is Jim Broadbent’s Buckingham, Dominic West is a suggestively arrogant Richmond and there’s a clever touch in having the (normally off-stage) Princess Elizabeth in many scenes, her wordless presence keenly felt. An excellent reinvention indeed.

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