Shakespeare Transposed: Richard III (1995)

June 16, 2015 | By

Richard_III_BRI’ve been a huge fan of Richard Loncraine and Ian McKellen’s version of Shakespeare’s Richard III, knowing the film I caught in cinemas in 1995 was really unique. The initial jarring reaction of hearing the Bard’s prose spoken in a fascist Orwellian England during the 1930s vanished when it became clear the look, sound, performances and locations within this amazing little film were so refreshing.

Richard_III_posterAs the poster demonstrates, McKellen wasn’t yet a major name in the U.S., so the addition of Annette Benning and Robert Downey Jr.’s heads on the poster was a ploy to get more bums into cinemas.

When Richard III’s actual bones were uncovered in a parking lot a few years ago, it provided historians another opportunity to re-examine the controversial figure whose been portrayed in filmed versions as a conniving crook. Was he so horribly evil, or just another jealous royal doing what anyone with smarts and a flair for spotting opportunity would do?

Shakespeare’s play and the film, while perhaps florid distortions of bad behaviour, nevertheless remind us of the bloody histories of kingdoms in which assassins, rebellions, and seething jealousies caused power shifts, upset the stability of nations and states, and are part of the deep roots of several modern monarchies.

Loncraine and McKellen’s film is also noteworthy for being perhaps the first attempt to directly transpose the original text to a more contemporary time setting in film, launching a wave of further efforts in dramas and comedies.

Besides the direction and performances, a personal attraction is the splendid use of architecture which should interest fans of the Tate Modern, as one of two former coal-fired power plants are featured in the film. Architect Giles Gilbert Scott designed cathedrals, so it’s unsurprising his 1930s creations, especially the Battersea Power Station, resemble cathedrals.

The Battersea also has an oppressive design which fits in perfectly with Loncraine and McKellen’s fascist resetting; it is a structure that may have been conceived to force a higher regard within its environs for the magic of industrial power, but it’s equally fascistic, much like Soviet and Third Reich architecture designed to diminish the importance of the individual.

Scott’s designs have an industrial elegance – they lack the pompous, overbearing grotesquery of Third Reich edifices and monuments – but the Battersea is perhaps a victim of its intended purpose to feed consumers energy, and by virtue of its mandate, it had to be a giant brick, concrete, and steel bulk that dominates the immediate waterside.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray sports a lovely transfer and sound mix, of which the latter is more evocative of the punch surround sound mixes of the era than the more discrete multi-track 5.1 mixes that followed. I always remember the film’s bass, which itself exploited Trevor Jones’ drone-drenched music of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Coming next: a lengthy examination of Tippi Hedren’s Roar (1981), which continues its extended run at the Royal Cinema this month. Also coming shortly thereafter are reviews of Blind Woman’s Curse (1970) from Arrow Video, and a Pat Boone double-bill featuring April Love (1957) from Twilight Time + Bernadine (1957), the latter available nowhere except YouTube.



Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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