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WILL AND ME: Richard III (1995) Review

Updated on February 16, 2014
The original poster. (Even by looking at the promotions, you can tell it's going to be an insult to the work of Shakespeare!)
The original poster. (Even by looking at the promotions, you can tell it's going to be an insult to the work of Shakespeare!) | Source

WILL AND ME: RICHARD III (1995) REVIEW

CAST:

Sir Ian McKellen; Annette Benning; Jim Broadbent; Robert Downey Jr; Sir Nigel Hawthorne; Jim Carter; Kristin Scott Thomas; Maggie Smith; John Wood.

CREATIVE TEAM:

Director—Richard Loncraine

Producers—Lisa Katselas Pare & Stephen Bayly

Screenplay—Sir Ian McKellen & Richard Loncraine; from a play by William Shakespeare; based on a stage production by Richard Eyre.

***

Adapted from a production directed by Richard Eyre at the National Theatre in London, Richard III is the modern reimagining of William Shakespeare’s earliest produced plays, set in an alternative universe where the United Kingdom is ruled under a Nazi-esque dictatorship during the 1930s.

After defeating Henry the Sixth during a bloody massacre (where Henry and his men, for some reason, speak in the mood killing non-Elizabethan language of English), the families residing in the houses of York settle their differences, thus putting an end to the lifelong civil war between the two royals. Edward the Fourth (John Wood) of the house of York is crowned King of Britain, much to the delight of the people who inhabit the country…. with the exception of one: Edward’s hunchbacked brother, The Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III (Ian McKellen.)

After years of being shunned by the kingdom as a freak of nature that will never amount to anything, Gloucester uses the end of the feud between the two families to his advantage, hoping to achieve his lifelong ambition of becoming the ruler of the land instead of Edward. With help from a several two-faced members of parliament and King Edward’s household, Gloucester sets out on his cunning quest to claim the English crown. From murdering his siblings and nephews, to ordering the execution of politicians, The Duke of Gloucester does whatever he can to overthrow the remaining members of the House of York, and place himself on the throne. It is a journey that will reduce his morality, cost the lives of the innocent, and lead to his OWN downfall.

It was Shakespeare’s seventh completed play, and already, at a time when he was STILL learning his craft, he had created a masterpiece of historic storytelling…. even though the script may not be 100% accurate to the actual story of the last king to ever fight in battle. The original play was—and still is—an epic symphony of words filled with action, lust, ambition and a cast of characters that dance off the page before you can even find a troupe of actors to bring to life these figures of the past. (It is an important piece of theatre and literature that was already perfect in every way before it was ever published in the first folio.)

Just as a stage play, it translated well with the audiences who flocked to see it. So, when it was suggested that the play should be adapted for the big screen (and modernized in the process), how did a play about an evil king translate when the film was first screened across the globe? Well, let’s put it this way: It has its ups and far too many downs! (And by the end of the flick, the downs over power one’s impression of this approach to Shakespeare’s Richard III.)

Like all modern interpretations, there are approaches that work very well and make you want to reward the director for their choice of artistic license, whilst there are approaches that make any Shakespeare fan want to throw their slushies at the screen. Richard III has a great deal of moments with artistic genius, but a great, great deal of artistic stupidity.

The positives moments of the film are really something worth treasuring: The tone of the film is the most powerful style of directing and cinematography one can ever see, succeeding at sucking you into the world that Gloucester/Richard roams. With one look, and you truly feel the chill of the Tower of London (amazingly substituted by Bankside Power Station/Tate Modern Art Gallery), smell the odour of the rotting corpses of murdered soldiers in the hospital wards, or feel the heat of the flames as each bomb explodes under Richard’s feet.

As well as Richard Loncraine’s direction and Peter Biziou’s lighting skills, the acting of McKellen as he takes on the role of the devilish royal is really amazing to watch…. but that’s a no brainer when it comes to approaching a film with Sir Ian McKellen name’s on the bill. McKellen stays true to how King Richard was originally written in the Shakespeare script: Grumpy, evilly charming, manipulative and downright insane. All he has to do is smirk at the camera, and already, you can tell that the deformed Duke of Gloucester should have been thrown in to an asylum years ago. McKellen clearly doesn’t allow the modernizing of the script (in which he co-wrote with the film’s director) eliminate his knowledge of Shakespeare and what makes the bard’s characters tick. (Once a master of Shakespeare, always a master of Shakespeare!)

Along with the acting of McKellen, the performances of the fellow cast members is also amazing to watch…. minus the acting quality of Robert Downey Jr. in the small and heavily re-written role of Rivers, in which he portrays so horribly with his strong American accent and no experience of the bard’s language. (His appearance in the film is nothing but pointless celebrity casting in order to boost the box office sales!)

The film’s tone and the cast of actors (excluding one wooden yank) are the ONLY high points worth seeing. The rest of the film’s presentation goes downhill from there:

Throughout the entire flick, it is nothing but 104 minutes of bad choices, dodgy script edits and shattered expectations. From the moment it opens up with a scene where Henry the Sixth and his army do not speak in the Elizabethan language, you immediately get that feeling that Hollywood has taken a big dump on the text that didn’t require changing in the first place.

The famous soliloquy recited at the beginning (the “now is the winter of our discontent” speech) is ruined beyond redemption by being having the first ten or so lines portrayed as a public speech to the royal family, whilst the rest of it is portrayed as a private monologue that is recited…. when Richard uses the loo! This approach to one of the most famous villain speeches ever written is underwhelming and completely disgusting! (In what way was it necessary to show our main character for the next hour and forty minutes urinating? Even for a royal who orders for the murder of his defenceless nephews within a prison, a private moment like using the bathroom is makes him far too repulsive to look at! Do you really want to make him so disgusting that people can’t wait for him to die? I wonder how many people walked out of the film because of this, if not for how dull the method used for making the soliloquy natural is.)

Whilst Gloucester/Richard’s speech is ruined, other sections of the text has either been reduced to complete irrelevance, or interpreted and filmed in a way that gets our hopes up, but never pays off by the end of the scene. Notable examples are the deletion of half of the dialogue (just to fit well for the visual medium of cinema in general…. a filmmaking rule that I have ALWAYS hated), reducing the roles of the supporting characters (and deleting any chances of proper character development that didn’t focus on King Richard or The Duke of Buckingham (Jim Broadbent) for once), and the underwhelming portrayal of the battle scenes that are featured.

I really don’t understand why half of the film is based around an all-star cast, when really, you probably only needed THREE big stars to help sell the film: McKallen, Broadbent and Anne Benning (in the role of Elizabeth Woodville.) Other than Richard, his sidekick and the woman he dreams of getting in bed with, the rest of the characters are so small that it makes you wonder if film producers get a big kick out hiring some of the greatest thespians who ever lived, (like Sir Nigel Hawthorne, Maggie Smith and Kristin Scott Thomas for instance) and only giving them 20-40 minutes of screen time. The characters in Richard III don’t seem as important to the plot compared to how much they moved the narrative along in the original play. Characters like Clarence (Hawthorne) or Hastings (Jim Carter) have been reduced to mere bill-fillers so that it doesn’t look like that the filmmakers are giving too much attention to the title character.

The thing that fails the most about in the film is the fight scenes, notably the modernized portrayal of the Battle of Bosworth towards the end of the story, where, upon seeing the soldiers, the mighty steam engines, the tanks, the jeeps and the war planes, your heart begins to beat faster than normal, participating/hoping for an epic fight that could easily be described as “Lord of the Rings with guns.” But when the actual battle happens, you are not given much to enjoy. It starts and finishes so suddenly, everything is rushed, and the outcome of the fight (i.e.—Richard’s death) is as anti-climactic as drinking a cup of tea…. or every damn death scene that features in this film! They start building up your expectations, but then leave you at only the halfway point. Instead of shouting “awesome”, you are left shrugging your shoulders and letting out a sigh of: “It was okay….I guess.”

Other disappointments of the film include the design of Richard’s hump, which is far too subtle and WEAK to notice; badly composed songs at the beginning of the film and during the end credits; and the underwhelming idea to portray Richard’s nightmare about his murdered victims as voices his head, instead of actually showing the ghosts as it has always been portrayed. (I thought the idea of a moving image was to present visual opportunities that you could never do in the theatre.)

Richard III is a film that’s not worth its 1996 Oscar nominations. If you’re a fan of Richard Loncraine or Sir Ian McKellen, then you’ll enjoy this flick a great deal. But if you hate seeing a play by one of the greatest dramatists who ever lived being downplayed and cheapened to a typical B grade Hollywood war movie, then avoid it at all cost. I guess it is worth a look, but your expectations won’t get many pay-offs. All this film is is a screen adaption of Shakespeare for Dummies. If you wanted to see an ingenious idea of setting Richard III in 1930s Britain, I recommend getting a time machine and going back to past to see the original National Theatre production of the play in which this film is based on. At least that was a stage show and stayed true to the bard’s text. Frankly, Richard III works much better on the stage: In theatre, you can only do so much in an enclosed environment; with the art of cinema, you have too many visual possibilities that you can’t tell apart the bad ideas from the good ideas.

(Richard III—five star acting in a two and a half star film!)

Ian McKellen as Richard III.
Ian McKellen as Richard III. | Source

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