• Richard III

    Released by: Twilight Time
    Released on: April, 2015.
    Director: Richard Loncraine
    Cast: Maggie Smith, Ian McKellen, Dominic West, Nigel Hawthorne, Annette Bening, Robert Downey Jr, Jim Broadbent, Kristin Scott Thomas
    Year: 1995
    Purchase From Screen Archives



    There's something deliciously ballsy about Ian McKellen's 1995 film version of Shakespeare's RICHARD III. Taking on one of the Bard's greatest roles is enough of a challenge in and of itself, but "modernizing" and trimming the play's text puts one on decidedly shaky artistic ground. But instead of an embarrassing failure, McKellen crafted something startling and unforgettable.

    I was raised by a stage actress. I was watching full Shakespeare productions by the age of 5 and while other children my age complained about the language I thought they were crazy. I LOVED Shakespeare. My favorite play was Julius Caesar. By the time I was a teenager I'd switched my allegiance to Macbeth, and while I had become obsessed with horror, action and genre films, my love for Shakespeare never wavered. I did, however, have one ironclad rule in regard to Shakespeare adaptations instilled in me with great fervor by my mother: don't mess with the text. Having once suffered through an atrocious punk rock reimagining of King Lear, I vowed NEVER to watch such claptrap again. I had heard positive rumblings about McKellen's version though. And since it involved a bit of a twist with my other lifelong obsession - WWII and 20th century fascism - I knew I couldn't resist. One look at Twilight Time's arresting cover image of McKellen decked out as a British fascist that dresses like a Nazi and I was ready to fight to get this review copy.

    The House Of York has been transplanted to an unspecified England sometime in the 1930's. Richard is a royal schemer and all around arch villain who has designs on the throne. Unfortunately he has quite a few things going against him. There's some pesky living relatives in front of him in the line of succession for one thing. Then there's his decidedly un-King like physical deformities. He's a hunchback with a nerve damaged dead arm. The first thing you notice is the outrageous costuming - Richard and his entourage are draped in some weird alternate reality Nazi British uniforms and the "good" characters tend to favor allied symbolism. But while the plot sticks to the basics of Shakespeare's play, the transposition to a modern timeframe makes the film more visceral. You realize that the mix of overweening arrogance and self-loathing and moral depravity that defines the murderous Richard is eternal. These people have always been with us and probably always will be. Richard is Hitler. Or Stalin. But he's better spoken.

    What makes McKellen so gripping in this role is his utter disdain for any vanity. He plays Richard as a physically repulsive creature with no sops to humanity. His only attempts at audience sympathy revolve around a variation of the "I had a rotten childhood" meme that seems to be a staple of the bad guy class. But mostly he's a gleeful monster. McKellen skirts camp on more than one occasion here with some incredible facial expressions and outrageous line readings, but he's never less than compelling. And he's supported by an outstanding cast, Standouts on that front include Maggie Smith as Richard's mother who refers to her son as a toad to his face, Kristin Scott Thomas as the woefully betrayed Lady Anne, and Nigel Hawthorne as Richard's tragically doomed brother the Duke of Clarence. Rounded out with first rate direction by Richard Loncraine and stunning set design, this film is a triumph on all fronts.

    It's also worth noting that this picture is almost the perfect gateway drug for the Shakespeare averse. By streamlining the text and moving it into the 20th century with an instantly identifiable fascist/Nazi motif, he's managed to strip off the period elements that frighten many young people away from England's greatest playwright. No wonder this adaptation has been taught in schools and McKellen himself has written a study guide!


    Twilight Time's 2.40:1. framed 1080p AVC encoded transfer has no serious issues. Color is very good and the film's grain - though occasionally heavy - looks natural. No DNR has been applied, but much of the film was shot soft intentionally, so detail isn't always razor sharp. I noticed some mild crush in darker scenes but nothing really detrimental. All told, this is a nice bump up from SD.

    Audio is provided by a very effective DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that manages to make good use of the surround field in some key sequences. There's a lot more going on in this film than just straight dialog and the track tackles it with aplomb. There's some depth and bottom end to this mix which was a pleasant surprise as well.

    The extras are sadly skimpy: theatrical trailer and a good sounding separate DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. track with isolated music and effects on it. And the usual insightful Julie Kirgo liner notes.


    While I'll never be down with messing with the Bard, I make an exception for this film. McKellen and company took a classic play and gave it a brilliant makeover. Engaging, a little outrageous and always riveting, this one's a bit of a minor classic. Long may the Nazi Richard shock people. Highly recommended.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!