‘Richard III’ Is Ian McKellen’s Glorious Rendition of an Absolute Villain

With Shakespeare's A Game of Thrones rendered into a Fascist version of '30s Britain, be careful whose side you're on.

If, as playground mnemonics for remembering the order of the visible colors within the spectrum of light are accurate and to be trusted — and why wouldn’t they be: it’s science — then Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain. Incidentally, it’s also a recorded historical fact that Richard of York, or Richard Plantagenet, or King Richard III, managed to remain the monarch of the sceptered isle called Merrie Olde England for two years before he was roundly defeated at Bosworth Field by Henry Tudor in 1485.

This is full-on bi-polar Magneto: one-part stiff and calculatedly unmoving façade, to one-part joyfully skipping through the daisy fields of fallen victims with nary a care in the world.

What the memory aide fails to account for, however, is the sheer amount of Machiavellian bastardry that Richard possibly brought to his A-game of thrones in getting that far. I guess they don’t cover that in science class.

Luckily, William Shakespeare was on hand 100 or so years later (circa. 1592) to have a crack at pleasing his Tudor Elizabethan nation with a tale of hump-backed hijinks (if by that we mean directly plotting the murder of everyone around him, including the Princes in the Tower) until the whole enterprise comes undone by nemesis-induced hubris, or, the Roadrunner of Henry VII to Richard’s Wile E. Coyote.

Now newly remastered and released in HD by the BFI, in director Richard Lonzcraine’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard III, half of the play’s text has been stripped away, but what we are offered instead is Sir Ian McKellen as Richard of York: in fine form and assuredly ripping his way through each scene in the brisk 104-minute running time. This isn’t McKellen’s Gandalf, casually puffing a pipe until the world resets itself and order is restored, this is full-on bi-polar Magneto: one-part stiff and calculatedly unmoving façade (compounded by his physical infirmities), to one-part joyfully skipping through the daisy fields of fallen victims with nary a care in the world.

In Shakespeare’s play, words and power transform the position of the “rudely stamp’d” villain. Richard even talks directly to the play-goer, using his charms as a self-assured charismatic leader to coerce them into following his bidding with the same Puckish delight that he takes in his own machinations. In this adaptation, co-written by McKellen himself, Richard gleefully cackles to the viewer, inviting us into his private inner-sanctum of two with a repulsion/attraction dynamic, but he doesn’t hang around waiting for the viewer to fully comprehend and process the implications of his abbreviated monologues: he doesn’t have that luxury of time.

Most of the speeches are made as Richard is moving from place to place, casually throwing his plots over his shoulder as scraps for the viewer to feed on. Richard has too many stratagems to execute, and he doesn’t want us slowing him down as he lays his traps and snares. With Richard, we have a proactive master manipulator that discards women and enemies as soon as it is convenient and takes action before anyone else has had time to wonder why Richard is making sexy-plays towards a grieving widow in a morgue over the body of a man he has killed. If Death waits for no man, then Richard also waits for no woman to turn him down (while also sneaking a kiss with the mother): his audacity is both shocking and utterly compelling to watch.

It’s a heady rollercoaster towards earning the “III”. One might say Richard is like a car crash in slow motion (the impact point of which leaves him famously sans-horse), but a more appropriate image (for the ascendancy of his arc, anyway) would be that he’s like a tank bursting through a wall — which is exactly what happens in the opening scene of the film, as masked soldiers (including Richard) then pour in to execute all that stand before them.

Loncraine’s adaptation is not set among the musty, moldy, cabbage world of medieval times, it has been transported to a Fascist version of ‘30s Britain, where blackshirt troops parade before their glorious leader with Battersea Power Station in the background. The transposition is brilliantly realized, giving a British The Man in the High Castle vibe, and is also faintly reminiscent of those ludicrous episodes from Star Trek: The Original Series where 20th century history gets out of hand on parallel planets, so Captain Kirk has to open-palm judo-chop them into submission. Except, in Richard III there are no otherworldly challengers to the status quo and Richard’s cunning reigns supreme.

Richard III features a world of pencil thin moustaches and sneering political pretensions over port and cigars. Aided immensely by the occasionally Riefenstahl-esque cinematography of Peter Bizou, and the Academy Award nominated art direction by Tony Burroughs and costumes by Shuna Harwood, invocations of Hitler and the Nazi regime are always uncannily close to hand, but it’s also a space in which the cast get to hone their roles as a special sort of Downton Abbey and Gosford Park “British”.

Dame Maggie Smith reprises her role as a concerned looking Dame Maggie Smith (in the guise of the Duchess of York) while Jim Carter and Jim Broadbent work double Jim-duties in being groveling and disconcerted in equal fashion as Lord Hastings and the Duke of Buckingham. Parallel to this, Kristin Scott Thomas turns every scene she’s in into a painfully tragic, soporifically drug-fueled exercise in wispy, noir-ish decline. As a haunting husk left to float aimlessly throughout the story, excluded from contact with almost all others, Thomas’ Lady Neville is a moral check for those attendants (both within the film and outside of it) who might be a little too seduced and blinded by the empty promises of Richard.

Thomas is disturbing in an entirely different way to Robert Downey Jr. who, in following Keanu Reeves’ turn as Don John in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing, threatens to capsize the film with the force of his incongruous personality alone. Playing Earl Rivers, Downey’s scenes can be described as: Downey having a grand drunk entrance, Downey as an irritated fellow (possibly drunk), Downey looking funny in a hat (likely drunk), Downey being stabbed through the back and out of his chest from beneath the bed he’s lying on, in a manner reminiscent of Alien (hopefully drunk).

There’s comedy in Richard III, but the best non-Shakespearean joke is left until last, where in falling to his death to meet his demise, Richard is seen to be grinning as “I’m Sitting on Top of the World” ironically accompanies the fiery freefall from affected grace. The moment both reflects the Acme antics of Wile E. Coyote, where the pathetic figure seems to always end up falling into a ravine at the back-fired end of an overelaborate, dastardly plot, and the climax of the 1949 film noir White Heat, where the equally scheming and over-reaching gangster, Cody (James Cagney), shouts “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” just as he meets his own death in a shoot-out induced explosion.

Loncraine and McKellen rightfully dominate the numerous extras for Richard III. They are both involved in the commentary track, and have a good 20-minute separately filmed conversation. There’s also a fascinating broader-focused feature called Shakespeare on Stage, Screen and Elsewhere with Ian McKellen, and if that’s not enough McKellen for you, there’s also a lengthy 30-page essay/booklet included, written by Mckellen, which takes you through the project with tones of details and notes.

By the end of the Richard III experience you will love the film, have a profound respect for McKellen, and be thankful to the BFI putting this all together for you. I’m deeply sorry for this but: “Now is the winter of our disc contents made glorious summer…”

RATING 9 / 10