As the movie begins, a tank smashes through the wall of a military command post, and a firefight ensues. A man dressed in black and wearing a gas mask, quickly shoots the Prince of Wales in the forehead and then executes the king as he prays for his life. Richard’s entrance in the film is reminiscent of Darth Vader’s, and we haven’t even got to the start of Shakespeare’s play yet.
Setting Richard III in a fascist England of the 1930s was an inspired decision. Richard reminds one of Stalin, Nazi pageantry dominates the visuals of the film, and by taking Shakespeare into an anachronistic time, one is struck by how well it works. What if England had broken into a civil war, with the king being deposed and a new regime sympathetic to the Axis taking over? Humanity has changed so little, even between the four hundred years separating the War of the Roses and WW2. And as always, hearing the language spoken makes it much more palatable, and one quickly is at ease with it. Though heavily abridged, the setting seems to reinforce the spirit of Shakespeare’s words.
The performances here are spectacular, especially Ian McKellen in the title role. He inhabits it with such relish that one finds it hard to root against him, even after he spills the blood of his two young nephews. Jim Broadbent can’t be the same guy from Moulin Rouge, can he? Annette Benning is also marvelous, though her role was actually a blend of two in the original. The only misfires I caught were Robert Downey, Jr. as Rivers: his American accent just didn’t work with the language. And Dominic West as the future Henry VII didn’t seem to bring anything to the role, though that could just be because I saw him as a young Jimmy McNulty.
McKellen's performance is utterly brilliant in its seductiveness, mixing sly direct addresses to the camera with more conventional scenes to build empathy for the nasty manipulator. This visual audaciousness is likely what makes the film so much fun.
The best Shakespeare I have ever seen on the stage was a performance of Henry V set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. But it’s something we don’t see on film all too often. Branagh set Hamlet in Russia in 1900 or so, but Much Ado About Nothing and Henry V were both classical interpretations. It would likely help Shakespearian novices enjoy the plays more if they felt it wasn’t just about kings and princes from hundreds of years ago, but characters whose choices and stories are relevant no matter the setting. Much like Baz Luhrmann did with Romeo + Juliet.
If you haven’t seen this film, you should. Now if you will excuse me, I’m going to go watch some of the other unorthodox productions of Shakespeare, like Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood.