8 April 2000 | JMartin-2
An unfairly maligned interpretation
From the very first Shakespeare film (a silent version of "King John," of all things), filmmakers have sought to impose their own unique visions on Shakespeare; in the case of "King John," it was fairly simple (a scene of John signing the Magna Carta, which isn't in Shakespeare's play). Ever since, Shakespeare adaptations have faced the difficulty of remaining true to the greatest writer in the history of the English language while bringing something new to the table; filmed plays, after all, belong on PBS, not in the cinema.
Luckily, the minds behind this adaptation of "Richard III" is more than up to the challenge. To be fair, putting the movie in an alternate 1930's Fascist England doesn't serve the sort of lofty purpose that, say, Orson Welles' 1930s updating of "Julius Caesar" (intended to condemn the Fascist governments in Europe at that time) did. What it does do is allow the filmmakers to have a lot of fun. It's not necessarily more accessible -- the Byzantine intrigues and occasionally confusing plot can't be tempered by simply moving the setting ahead 500 years -- but it's definitely more entertaining. There's just something inherently amusing about Richard sneaking off for a pee after the "winter of our discontent" speech (still rambling on as he, ahem, drains the main), or giving the "my kingdom for a horse!" bit while trying to get his Jeep out of the mud.
To be sure, the Fascist England shown in the film isn't very convicing -- from OUR historical hindsight -- but this isn't our world, this is a world fashioned from the imagination that just happens to look like our own, just as Shakespeare's were. You can't criticize "King Lear" for its faux-historical setting any more than you can criticize this film for the same reason.
The complaint registered by a previous commentator -- more or less, "if you're going to move Shakespeare to a new period, you need to be true to that period" -- is utter bollocks, really. After all, it is inherently "untrue" to have people running around speaking Elizabethan dialogue in the 1700s, 1800s, 1900s, etc., so if you try to remain "true," you end up stripping away the dialogue -- the very essence of Shakespeare. I agree with the even more controversial Shakesperean theatre director Peter Sellars in that words are not what makes Shakespeare great, but rather his characters and ideas. But Shakespeare communicated those through his words, and if you change them, it's not Shakespeare anymore. The same commentator pointed to Branagh's more faithful interpretations as a counterweight to this film, yet Branagh's "Hamlet" is not only set in the 18th century but in a country that looks nothing like 1700s Denmark, even though the characters refer to it as such.
The complaints about McKellen's "hamminess" are equally unfounded. What are they using as their basis of comparision? Olivier? Olivier's Richard makes McKellen's look positively restrained by comparision. Richard is egotistical, bombastic, and prone to spouting lines like "thine eyes, sweet lady, have infected mine." I have little doubt in my mind that Skakespeare did not intend Richard to be played "straight" -- indeed, if Shakespeare had any concept of what we call "camp," he was probably thinking of it when he wrote the play. From this point of view, the "silly" little touches like the Al Jolson song at the end and even the newsreel of Richard's coronation fit in perfectly.
As with most Shakespeare films, the plot has been streamlined -- nearly all of the characters are here, but scenes and speeches have been truncated and removed, but despite what some have said, these aren't fatal to the plot or the characters. Richard's seduction of Anne does seem to occur to quickly, but it's not a completely successful one, seeing how she lapses into drug addiction later in the film. Besides, Richard's evil has nothing to do with the fact that his "inability to experience romantic love." Richard isn't a psychological portrait like Hamlet, he's a ruthless bastard, a piece of Tudor propaganda. When people praise "Richard III" (the play), it's not for its character depth.
I notice I've focused more on answering the film's detractors instead of dilineating its merits; in a way, I guess this expresses how much I like it. The cinematography, direction, and acting are all top-notch. The sets are perfect, once you realize that this is NOT historical England -- the power plant subbing for the Tower is more imposing than the real thing could ever be, and the factory ruins that serve as Bosworth Field are certainly more interested than a bunch of tanks and Jeeps roaming around the open countryside. Shakespeare purists will, of course, hate it, but then they hate anyone who dares to put anything more than a cosmetic spin on the Bard, be it Welles' "Voodoo 'Macbeth'" or Brook's stage production of "Titus Andronicus." For everyone else, read the play, then see the movie -- it'll help increase your appreciation of both.