A Royal Pain

Horror has an emotional shelf life. The remoteness of the Inquisition or the Diaspora makes these episodes of history less likely to stir up rage and sorrow in modern people than the Holocaust, many of whose victims are still among us. Ted Bundy and Charles Manson still make us shudder, while Jack the Ripper and Dr. Hawley Crippen, whose crimes were just as ghastly, have attained a folkloric identity--they're almost figures of fun.

So is Shakespeare's Richard III, the "bunch-back'd toad" who schemes and slays his way to the throne of England. Especially after Richard Dreyfuss' swishy lampoon of the role in The Goodbye Girl, it's difficult to take poor Dickie seriously.

This is presumably the idea behind Sir Ian McKellen's well-received stage production of Richard III, which has been reworked for the screen by McKellen, as star and screenwriter, in collaboration with director Richard Loncraine. Their version is set against the backdrop of appeasement-era 1930s England, and offers Richard as a tyrant of the 20th-century stripe--a falsely pious, militaristic, mustachioed martinet.

It's a fair enough angle to take. Shakespeare's Richard is pretty much a fictional character, anyway. Though Shakespeare probably believed in the veracity of his main source, Sir Thomas More's prose biography of the monarch, it is regarded by many modern historians as largely a tissue of Tudor propaganda. Even Richard's famous physical deformity is now thought to be a nasty invention of More's, since it's not mentioned in contemporary accounts of Richard's life and reign.

Out of a slanderous historical tradition, Shakespeare spun the archetypical Machiavellian tyrant of all drama--a sly murder-broker who, in chatty asides, makes the audience complicitous in his plots to eliminate enemies and consolodate power. Richard III is the author's second-longest work (after Hamlet); it moves at the plodding pace of a college graduation, and most of the dozens of characters in it, apart from Richard himself, are of Senecan one-dimensionality. It must be regarded less as a great play than as a great role wrapped in a rather dull play.

The role is so great, however, that it has juice enough to make ten dull plays worthwhile. Laurence Olivier's self-directed 1955 version, which took a traditional costume approach, was built around Olivier's unforgettable performance--the surgical precision of his line readings, hisvibrant, dynamic personality.

His was a magnificent piece of acting, but the Renaissance drag made Olivier a fairy-tale ogre, more seductive and hypnotic than truly evil. And since he was the only person onscreen who seemed alive in the first place (except for John Gielgud as Clarence), the deaths of his victims had little impact.

The new film is also built around the star's performance--as any version of Richard III finally must be--but the modern dress allows McKellen to give us a different, colder Richard, in a political context that allows us to sincerely hate him. What's marvelous is that this doesn't kill the black humor of the work; it deepens it.

This Richard is a true nut case, but he isn't perversely lovable, as Olivier's was; the keen intelligence and dry urbanity that McKellen gives him leave no doubt that he's aware of what he's doing, yet his slack, indifferent mug, often adorned by a dangling cigarette between pursed lips, suggests that he's psychologically distant from it. He is, to use an overworked word, alienated, as only a post-Industrial Revolution thug can be. When we laugh, it's at him, not with him, but laughter doesn't make his mayhem any less chilling.

McKellen and Loncraine's screenplay massively prunes the text. Unlike the recent Othello, however, that helps the film--it clears away the clutter of historical detail that would have had significance for Shakespeare's audience, but means little or nothing to us.

What we get, instead, is a wicked, fast-moving thriller that clocks in at well under two hours. It opens with a hilariously tongue-in-cheek depiction of Richard's defeat of the Lancasters at Tewkesbury--which Loncraine stages like the pre-title grabber of an action picture--with Richard's name spelled outto the accompaniment of pistol reports. This sort of thing is undeniably gimmicky, but great fun--themodern twist on "a horse, a horse ..." is truly ingenious.

This full-speed-ahead approach is not without casualties, of course. Tyrell (Adrian Dunbar) doesn't get to give his lament of remorse after the killing of the boy princes. Jim Broadbent makes a fine Buckingham, but his bleakly ironic speech as he's led to his execution is cut altogether. Of the play's few non-Richard highlights, only one survives: Nigel Hawthorne, as Clarence, is permitted to give a relatively full rendition of the "dream" soliloquy, and he brings it off beautifully.

The women fare better. Maggie Smith is superbly scornful as the Duchess of York, Richard's disappointed mother. As Lady Anne, Kristin Scott Thomas plays a woman seduced by the man she knows full well murdered her husband and her father-in-law, and yet manages to seem spectrally beautiful and degraded rather than simply ridiculous.

The splendid supporting cast also includes two surprisingly well-cast Americans--Annette Bening, who brings powerful vocal plangency to the part of Elizabeth, wife of King Edward (John Wood); and Robert Downey Jr. in the tiny role of her brother Lord Rivers. Within the '30s idiom, these Yanks make an obvious reference to Wallis Warfield, the controversial American bride of Edward VIII. They may have been cast for the sake of the American box office, but they add another layer of irony to this coolly potent retelling of a classic villain piece.

Richard III:
Directed by Richard Loncraine; with Sir Ian McKellen, Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, Annette Bening, Jim Broadbent, John Wood, Adrian Dunbar, Bill Paterson, Dominic West and Robert Downey Jr.

Rated

 
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