Movie Review: Richard III (1995)

Hey, you’re back! Great!  Did you have a good weekend?  I spent mine tooling around the galaxy on a space pirate ship. No, I didn’t decide to take up a life of pulpy crime; I was shanghaied.  There was a shootout with Space Police, an alien planet full of bullfrog-tarantula thingies, and a carnivorous turnip.  It was hardcore.

So today I know I promised you fiction.  But I’ve had computer issues; I’m having to reconstruct some of my story, so that’s going to be delayed until next Monday.  Sorry sorry sorry!  I do promise that it’ll appear soon; that’s part of my mandate, so I gotta make this happen.  In the meantime, I have a movie review for you.  I get a little ranty about it, I confess:  I enjoy Shakespeare, and take it seriously; he was the punk of his day.

But enough preamble.  Let’s get on with this!

Richard III is one of William Shakespeare’s most brilliant plays.  It’s also one of the plays most difficult for modern audiences to understand.  This isn’t that surprising; it’s got an enormous cast of characters, most of whom are related to one another in the most torturous web of connection, blood, loyalty.  It also requires the viewer to know more than average about history, who was on which side in the War of the Roses, who won what, where did everybody end up, blah blah blah.  Not an easy play to follow at the best of times.  Even the jokes (and there are more than you think) are so obscure and subtle that most of them fly right by without being noticed.

(BTW:  for those of you who want a better understanding of the play, but are intimidated by the thought of wading too deep into academia, I strongly recommend Looking for Richard.  This is an odd little quasi-documentary conceived by and starring Al Pacino.  In it, they break the play down into easily digested tidbits, playing out scenes and then discussing them, as well as looking at the broader impact of Shakespeare’s body of work.  Sounds dry, right?  It’s not. It’s worth checking out, if only for the idea of Al Pacino (who is always a delightful villain) chewing the scenery in the title role.  God, I love seeing him cut loose!

The basic plot is this (and I’m REALLY paring this down, the story is so much more):  The War of the Roses (I know you’ve heard of this one) pitted the Lancaster and York families against one another in a battle of who would be king of England.  At the beginning of the play, The Lancasters have just been defeated and the Yorks are taking control of the throne.  There are three York brothers:  Edward, Richard and George.  All three fought in the war, and the eldest, Edward, is now king.  Richard, our less-than-sterling anti-hero, is the middle child.  He is a deformed man, his outward hunchback reflecting his twisted, bitter personality (the idea that the real Richard was a hunchback – he wasn’t – came from this play.  A brilliant piece of propaganda, this play was, and I can’t blame Shakespeare too much for it; Queen Elizabeth I’s grandfather was the guy who defeated Richard, and a smart playwright doesn’t piss off his patron if he can help it).

So Richard is a bitter man, jealous and power hungry.  So he sets out to get the throne.  He is what we hillbillies might call “a shit-stirrer;”  he spends half the play lying, gossiping, manipulating, and sowing discord, until everybody is mad at everybody else, courtier loyalty is misdirected down half a dozen different paths, several people end up dead or disgraced.  And lo and behold, Richard ends up with the crown.  But can he keep it?  He kills his two little nephews so they can’t claim the throne, he starts eliminating this rival, that potential betrayer, the body count goes up and up, and he’s still not confident he can hold the throne.  And he can’t.  The Duke of Richmond (the future King Henry VII, Queen Elizabeth I’s granddad) raises an army and defeats Richard in the end, shortly after Richard says the iconic “My kingdom for a horse!” line.  And there you go.  I didn’t actually think it was possible to boil this play down into two paragraphs.  I don’t even want to think about how much I left out.

So anyway, back to the subject at hand:  why drag out the bane of high school English classes into a blog about Steampunk, Dieselpunk and New Pulp?  Because of this.  An adaptation of a stage production, this 1995 film takes the play and moves it to a highly fictionalized 1930’s Great Britain, and casts the brilliant Sir Ian McKellan in the title role.  It has a star studded cast:  Robert Downey, Jr, Annette Benning, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jim Broadbent, Maggie Smith (one of my personal favorites) all make appearance, all doing brilliant jobs.

The sets are absolutely gorgeous, and, according to Wikipedia, the production used actual period buildings as often as possible, though some were repurposed (for example, a train station served as the set for the royal palace).  The costumes are also gorgeous, true to the 1930’s aesthetic, and reminiscent of the glamor of the silver screen.

But this is not the England you know from watching Doctor Who or Downton Abbey.  In the time of Richard III, “constitutional monarchy” was unheard of and laughable.  The kingship was a dictatorship, where saying something as simple as “I wonder who’ll sit on the throne after King XXX dies” got your head hacked off.  For real, not making that up; even mentioning that the king might be mortal was treason.  If idle conversation was deadly, you can imagine what the rest of life in that time was like.  The guys who adapted this put a lot of thought into that, and it shows:  you really feel like the story is taking place in an England that is more fascist than 1940’s Germany.  Even the streets seem cold and threatening.

In my own, very humble opinion, it’s a great adaptation of the play.  They got the look right, they got the feel right.  The actors do a wonderful job.  I will say that, while I adore Ian McKellan, I thought his performance a little uneven.  I expected the seduction of Anne Neville to have more weight than it did; he seemed flat in that scene.  Other scenes he had a delightfully cold villainy about him; the opening monologue has a wonderful balance of light self-deprecation and serial-killer chill.

They did not change the actual words of the play, but they did whittle them down.  Whole scenes were cut out and others were shifted about, changing their context.  For the most part I can understand that – it’s a long play, and pretty complex – but, for example, cutting out Queen Margaret, that was just disappointing.  That’s the thing with Shakespeare:  you cut away even little pieces, and you’re undermining some of the richness of the story.  It doesn’t ruin the movie, but it does remove some of the flavor.  All told, I’d give the movie a 7 or 8 out of ten.  Not perfect, but pretty damned close.

Here’s an interesting thought:  this is set in a vague 1930’s England, the exact year never named.  In 1936, there really was a royal crisis in the UK:  Edward VIII, playboy, celebrity and newly minted king, wanted to marry an American divorcee named Wallis Simpson, a very strict no-no for a British king.  Okay, there was more to it than that:  Edward was butting heads with the Privy Council and Parliament over policy, he was dismissive of the traditional role of king and the ceremonies he was required to perform, he had strong leanings toward Hitler and fascism, on and on.  There was a lot going on.  But the insistence on marrying Simpson was, depending on which source you listen to, either A) the straw that broke the camel’s back or B) an extremely fortuitous and convenient excuse to get rid of an unwanted king, to the point of almost being a deus ex machina.  Practical upshot:  Edward was forced off the throne and his little brother, George VI (father of Queen Elizabeth II) ended up as King.

Do not let what I’m about to say confuse you about the real story:  the fact is, George VI had no hand in driving his brother off the throne.  Every account I’ve read or heard said he was a good and decent man who seriously didn’t want to be king, didn’t think he was suited to be king, took the throne very reluctantly indeed, and, by several accounts, was never happy in the role, though he held it to 1952.

But you see what I’m getting at, the parallels between the movie and real life.  One brother on the throne, one brother not.  Machiavellian machinations behind the throne.  The younger brother succeeding the other in an unorthodox fashion.  All of this taking place against a background of world wide anti-socialist mania and the growing madness of European fascism.

What if the crisis of 1936, of Edward vs. Parliament vs. George, what if it had played out a little more like this play and movie?  What if George had really wanted the throne, and played the kind of hell-spawned political hardball that Richard III did?  I wonder how it would have all played out.  Interesting thought experiment, no?

Okay, that’s all I got for today.  Busy busy day today, tons of writing to do.  I love my job!  I’ll see y’all on Wednesday.  In the meantime, share, comment, follow, email, tweet!  Your commentary and feedback are all the pay bloggers get.

Categories: Dieselpunk, Review, Uncategorized, Video | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Movie Review: Richard III (1995)

  1. Pingback: Shakespearean Histories Tuesday – Watch: ‘Richard III’ (Richard Loncraine, 1995) | Seminal Cinema Outfit

  2. Great review!

    We’re linking to your article for Shakespearean Histories Tuesday at

    Keep up the good work!

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