by Cathleen Myers
Suppose King Edward VIII had married Wallis Simpson, made an alliance with Hitler and the Italian fascists and had a brother who was a brilliant general and ruthless politician to assist him to power as military dictator of a fascist England. This is the exciting, twisted premise of this innovative film version of Shakespeare’s Richard III (set in a parallel universe 1930’s), directed by Richard Loncraine and starring Ian McKellen, who co-wrote the screenplay. The dialogue, though stripped of thee’s and thou’s and, with a few small title changes (Hastings, for instance, is Edward’s complaisant yes-man Prime Minister), is entirely Shakespeare’s. Believe it or not, the film works, aided by Trevor Jones’ jazzy 30’s score, Shuna Harwood’s elegant 30’s costumes, and well-cast actors who give an utterly straight, natural delivery of Shakespeare’s text. There are some delicious touches of black humor in the film: the Woodvilles in this version are Americans and it’s therefore easier for a modern audience to comprehend how much this upstart family was detested! Annette Bening is a glamorous Queen Elizabeth but Robert Downey, Jr., plays her brother, the newly created Earl of Rivers, as a dissolute playboy, making King Edward’s decision to give the Regency to Richard much more understandable!
So why update Shakespeare in the first place? While we’ve found most updated Shakespeare productions gimmicky and self-conscious, this one works because it uses its dark 30’s setting - a time in the past that the audience can readily identify with - to show how easily the tragedy of Richard III’s dictatorship could happen in our own time. McKellan plays Richard as intelligent and courageous but with a paranoia that alienates his own friends. The final action sequences are especially gripping (Richard utters his most famous speech, appropriately, after his jeep breaks down). And we predict that even devout Ricardians will find the new, ironic ending very satisfying indeed.
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