Spirited acting, machine-gun pacing and ominous Art Deco settings combine to rousing effect in this “Richard III,” a sure-fire crowd-pleaser among recent Shakespeare movies. Adapting an acclaimed British stage production, director Richard Loncraine and star Ian McKellen do the Bard a favor by transferring his most celebrated royal thug from the Middle Ages to the no less blood-soaked 1930s. Result is a fast, exuberant, violent ride that, given careful handling by MGM/UA, should build a kingly constituency at artier sites and in vid playoff.
Decision to set tale in ’30s Britain, with Richard and his cronies painted as Mosley-like fascists, perhaps sounds glib and culturally fashionable. Its biggest contribution here, however, isn’t any particular political resonance but pleasing parallels to classic gangster films; indeed, viewers may come away surprised that Edward G. Robinson and Howard Hawks never mounted such an adaptation, although Orson Welles did stage a fascist-angled “Julius Caesar” in ’37.
Other main difference from previous versions is the boldness with which Loncraine and McKellen have condensed Shakespeare’s second-longest play, which can run four hours onstage. Lots of text is simply deep-sixed, yet the cutting is so intelligently done that it both aids the pace and sometimes makes meanings and character relationships clearer than they are in Olivier’s celebrated 1955 movie, which is longer by 50 minutes.
Tale opens with a war scene, implied by the play, in which Richard’s forces overwhelm a rival HQ and he shoots and kills Prince Edward. Action then shifts to a victory gala where, after a big-band version of Marlowe’s “Come live with me and be my love,” Richard takes the stage and begins his “winter of our discontent” monologue as a speech, then completes it privately in a nearby lavatory, speaking to the camera.
Such staging suggests the imaginativeness on display throughout, as Loncraine propels the action through a succession of striking settings that offer plenty of visual fascination without detracting from the drama of a black-shirted tyrant on the make.
McKellen’s Richard is less the Machiavellian monster of some versions and more the craftiest of organization men, bent on pushing his power as far as the system will allow it to go and chillingly amused at the various ruses that permit him to murder his way to the top. A vivid, finely honed characterization, it receives top-notch support, especially in Jim Broadbent’s pliant Buckingham, Nigel Hawthorne’s credulous Clarence and Kristin Scott Thomas’ conflicted Lady Anne.
Casting Americans Annette Bening and Robert Downey Jr. as Queen Elizabeth and her brother makes sense for characters who are foreign-born, and Bening does standout work in the larger role, giving the queen the presence of a woman who could hold her own against the usurping Richard.
Perhaps the only drawback of pic’s headlong momentum is that the tragic weight of some events tends to get brushed aside. This is a notable fault, but ultimately a forgivable one considering the film’s success in bringing such spark and bite to an ornate tale.
Tony Burrough’s splendid production design and Peter Biziou’s sharp photography contribute enormously to pic’s visual punch. Other tech credits are equally solid.