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This week forensic scientists in the UK determined that the skeletal remains found buried beneath a parking lot are those of Richard III, the last Plantagenet ruler. The notorious Richard III is remembered as a royal bully and murderous usurper in large part thanks to Shakespeare’s play by the same name. While there have been many adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, to my mind, the 1995 version of Richard III is undoubtedly one of the best. Directed by Richard Loncraine with a screenplay by both Loncraine and actor Sir Ian McKellen, the story is transplanted from pre-Elizabethan England to an imaginary 1930’s pre-World War II London.
The movie opens with a tank crashing into the opposing side’s HQ and Richard of Gloucester, breathing heavily through a gas mask a la Darth Vader, shoots and kills Prince Edward. With both the Lancaster King and his heir dead, the House of York claims victory after a bloody civil war that has raged through England. With the ascent of the House of York, there is a new king; Edward IV (John Wood). But Richard (Ian McKellen) is not content to be a mere Duke. Oh no. His ambitions are far greater and if he has to dispatch his two elder brother and both young nephews to reach the crown then so be it.
Let me emphasize that this is not a Shakespeare play being filmed. No. It is a movie for modern audiences and feels like such. Shakespeare purists may be put off by the editing of the script (a lot of the original text is cut out) but I find this “conversational” Shakespeare more accessible to today’s audience with none of the original context lost.
Soon after defeating the House of Lancaster, Richard gives his “winter of our discontent” monologue at a victory gala speech with a big-band in the background playing Marlowe’s “Come live with me and be my love”. I kid you not! He finishes his monologue privately in a nearby urinal speaking to the camera, to us, thus making the audience his co-conspirators. There’s also the famous lines “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” delivered by Richard III when his jeep gets stuck in the mud.
The sets and costumes are visually stunning and add to the cinematic richness. What begins with an Art Deco look and feel is soon replaced with Nazi-like symbolism, black shirts and terror as we observe the royal thug on the make. Ian McKellen is fascinating and loathsome as the Machiavellian, twisted usurper as he seduces, schemes, snarls and murders his way into power.
The rest of the stellar cast is superb as well. With Nigel Hawthorne as older brother Clarence who still believes that Richard loves him right up until the moment his throat is slit in a bath tub. Jim Broadbent as the pliant and amoral Buckingham. Kristin Scott-Thomas as the weak-willed and confused Lady Anne who allows herself to be seduced by the monster who murdered both her father and her husband. Annette Benning holds her own as Queen Elizabeth fighting for the lives of her children. Her brother, Earl Rivers (Robert Downey Jr.) who has never been deceived by Richard’s true intentions and yet both he and his sister are woefully out of their depth as they confront the menacing usurpe . And Maggie Smith, as the Duchess of York and Richard’s mother is magnificent.
I cannot recommend this movie enough. If you have never seen this version of Richard III, go watch it now!