Label: Twilight Time
Released: April 14, 2015
Genre: Drama / Tragedy / Satire / Shakespeare
Synopsis: Using an assortment of murderous deeds and meticulous manipulation, Richard III assumes the role of King in this taut adaptation of Shakespeare’s play transposed to a fascist Orwellian England.
Special Features: Isolated Stereo Music and Music & Effects Track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.
Director Richard Loncraine and star Ian McKellen’s reworking of William Shakespeare’s classic tale of a king ‘offering his kingdom for a horse’ is given a wholly new spin by reducing the epic play (reportedly one of the Bard’s longest) to roughly 100 mins. with surprisingly minimal dialogue.
Loncraine and McKellen’s adaptation retains only the most vital of words, allowing images to dominate in many scenes, especially in the film’s first 10 minutes in which Richard III (McKellen) leads an assassination and re-emerges at a large ball where the entire royal family puts on their happy faces while schemes to unset the new order gestate.
Loncraine and McKellen’s most clever maneuver is to adapt and transpose the main story points to 1930s England in an Orwellian Fascist state. The decadence of royalty is everywhere – Tony Burrough’s production design is extraordinary, making use of beautiful sets and actual locations, while Shuna Harwood’s costumes are exquisite, whether regal, feminine, or snazzily evoking the Nazi Gestapo with black uniforms, fancy crests, and red trim. No expense seems to have been paid to make this a work of visual beauty, functioning like a sleek canvas onto which Richard worms, dances, pirouettes, and addresses characters and the audience with a special kind of malevolent glee.
McKellen’s performance is potent in dialogue delivery and physical movements, and among his most flamboyant props is a perpetual stream of cigarettes that act as smoldering extensions of his villainous scheming. (The level of smoking in Richard III is utterly ridiculous.)
Packed with a stellar array of British character actors, there’s no weak link in the cast, although Robert Downey Jr.’s seems like a concession to ensure the film would play better to American audiences and appease U.S. financiers. Annette Benning may have been similarly cast to ensure trans-oceanic appeal, but she gives one of her best performances as the widow Elizabeth of the sickly king; she knows the lives of their two sons are in danger when members of her inner circle keep getting knocked off.
Richard is truly a swine, killing children by proxy to ensure an empty playing field, and the deaths are especially nasty, with the Duke of Clarence (Nigel Hawthorne) drowned and getting his throat cut; Lord Rivers (Downey) piked a la Friday the 13th (1980) and Bay of Blood (1971); and Lord Hastings (Jim Carter) brutally hung with his body almost slamming into the camera below. The grotesque deaths (still relatively brief) certainly evokes the cruelty and mordantly wacky murders in Shakespeare’s Titus.
Chilly Kristin Scott Thomas plays Lady Anne, the widow who weds Richard not long after he plants a bullet in her husband’s cranium, while ice-faced Adrian Dunbar is Tyrell, Richard’s chief and most devoted assassin.
Loncraine’s direction is confident, brisk, and elegant, with Peter Biziou’s cinematography making even the grungiest environs of Clarence’s prison and the massive structure where Richard ‘loses his kingdom’ starkly beautiful. Especially striking is the prison complex where Elizabeth’s sons are locked up – the Bankside Power Station, later redeveloped into the Tate Modern, and was original designed by architect Giles Gilbert Scott, who produced a range of memorable creations, from cathedrals, bridges, and the iconic red telephone box.
The finale is filled with all sorts of bravado, from performances to action, but the most striking element is the derelict Battersea Power Station which, like Scott’s Bankside station, resembles the kind of edifice one would find within Orwell’s 1984, except on steroids. (Unlike its cousin, the Battersea still awaits a successful redevelopment plan, of which the latest appears to be an elite level condo community.)
Loncraine and McKellan’s film is both a massive tragedy and a nasty black comedy, with the proof of its mordant humour residing in the outrageous finale in which Richard tumbles downward from a girder as a cloud of fire immolates the smiling king, while Al Jolson’s peppy “I’m Sitting on the Top of the World” echoes through the rich surround sound mix. (Richard’s demise certainly evokes the ending of 1949’s White Heat, in which gangster Cody Jarrett ‘sits on top of the world’ as fire burns across an oil storage depot and Jarrett is soon blown towards the Heavens.)
Auguring the dark humour is Trevor Jones’ score which treats tragedy with more sincerity than Loncraine’s direction, and gives momentum to the action scenes, especially the exciting finale where Richard is ultimately hunted down amid the rusting beams and towering smokestacks of the Battersea plant.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray features a sharp HD transfer, but the real surprise is the enveloping punch of the sound mix which also exploits Jones’ patented bass drones which characterized his writing style of the period. There are some stylistic similarities to the composer’s Angel Heart (wailing sax and mocking brass) but it’s more subdued, and the relatively sparse score has some magnificent full orchestral cues.
Typical of the period (and like Jones’ Mississippi Burning and Angel Heart), the soundtrack album was a remix of sound effects and dialogue which satisfied no one, so it’s a delight to hear a bit more of Jones’ music in the isolated stereo music and effects track. A good half of the cues are clean (possibly lifted from the few unedited versions on the CD), so Jones’ fans have another reason to snap up TT’s disc.
Loncraine and McKellen’s film was among the first films to transpose a Shakespearean play with its dialogue intact to a different and more contemporary time period, predating later efforts such as Hamlet (2000) with pouty Ethan Hawke, the kinetic and music-heavy Romeo + Juliet (1996), Othello updated to an inner-city high school in O (2001), and Titus (1999), reset in a similarly fascist era with Italian monuments and architecture.
One can also argue Richard III established a particular template in which any effort to compress and transpose the Bard’s work mandated a more stylized visual design. O may not be as visually dynamic, but certainly the other aforementioned productions benefit from designs that are visually unique, if not sometimes extravagant, culminating with Baz Lurhman’s gyroscopic direction in Romeo + Juliet.
Loncraine’s other films include Brimstone & Treacle (1982), The Missionary (1982), Bellman and True (1987), and the highly praised The Gathering Storm (2002).
Shakespeare’s Richard III has been adapted many times for the big screen, notably in 1912 in a production regarded as the oldest surviving complete American feature film with a newly commissioned score by Ennio Morricone; Laurence Olivier’s blazing Technicolor version from 1955 featuring a sterling William Walton score; and another set of transposed versions from 2005 (a British housing project) and 2008 (reset to Hollywood).
The more curious versions are a 1996 version by Philippe Mora (Communion, Snide and Prejudice) produced for the internet, and a 1996 BBC-Time Life production which runs an epic 4 hours.
As for the late king himself, the remains of Richard III eventually disappeared from the record books until they were discovered under a parking lot in London which formerly housed a church. Using DNA from surviving relatives (one in Canada), Richard’s remains were interred more respectfully (and safely) in Leicester Cathedral in 2015.
Pity the Blu-ray doesn’t include a commentary track nor reflective interviews with director and star, but Julie Kirgo’s liner notes manage to rightfully salute this gem which did enjoy a theatrical release (and several Oscar nominations) before being eclipsed Olivier’s version on home video.
© 2015 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review