“Is There a Murderer Here?”: The Great Villainy of Richard III

poster ii

It is no secret how much I love the Shakespeare – the Immortal Bard has been the subject of many a post on this blog. Shakespeare’s plays are timeless in that they are often rejuvenated in film form. Movie lovers who wrestled with the gruelling texts during their high school years have rediscovered these enduring plots and characters, which are as full-bodied and relevant today as they were four hundred years ago.

Richard III is one such play. I was never much of a fan of Shakespeare’s history plays – I still get all the Henrys mixed up. Aside from a few monologues, I find the dearth of female characters and excess of battle and political scenes such a bore. Richard III is sometimes grouped with Shakespeare’s histories, but I much prefer to put him in with the tragedies – and I love those!

Fun Fact: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF RICHARD III (1912) is thought to be the oldest known feature-length film produced in the United States.

It will come as no surprise that Laurence Olivier made RICHARD III (1955). I might get beheaded by the mob for admitting this, but Sir Larry’s Shakespeare adaptations are not my favourite. I find his acting very much in the old school style. His performances seemed so self-consciously, as if the character is aware of the gravitas of performing Shakespeare-with-a-capital-Shakes. I much prefer Kenneth Branagh’s more natural, humanistic style. Unfortunately, Sir Kenneth has yet to make a Richard III, but I am hoping he will get around to it one of these days.

“Why do you keep doing Shakespeare? Well, because it’s meaningful to me. That to do it well – or even just to work on it – I find very life-enhancing. I don’t have any kind of conventional religious belief and I find Shakespeare’s a tremendous source of inspiration, because there’s no situation that I’ve come up against that somehow hasn’t been described in those plays.”

Kenneth Branagh

Royal Family

Not only do I find Ian McKellen’s RICHARD III (1995) the best version of this play, but it may also be my favourite film adaptation of any of Shakespeare’s plays (although it is neck and neck with MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (1993)). The story of the crippled, evil, murderous monarch is set against an inter-war background, with distinct fascist undertones. This transposition delivers an invigorating plot from the doldrums of the Medieval Era into the light of a modern setting. It gives new energy and life to what is otherwise perceived as a heady political piece.

Did you know? Only about half of the original play is used in the film script. Some of the female roles were lengthened and some female characters are shown in scenes in which they do not appear in the play. I am very much in favour of these changes.

The opening sequence of RICHARD III (1995) is a stroke of genius. It is more like the overture to an action flick than a stodgy Shakespeare play. These scenes show the liberties a modern production can take by working around the text to fill in context. Without any spoken lines, this filmic prelude lays the groundwork for the story to come.

Other elements that take this film from an ordinary filming of a play to extraordinary living Shakespeare

  • Ian McKellen’s Richard. Not only did McKellen write a monster screenplay, but he plays a monster villain. He is everything described in Shakespeare’s sketch of the king. He is twisted and evil, in every respect. Richard’s monologues are ideal for the camera, and McKellen’s familiarity with the camera takes down the fourth wall and brings the audience into his confidence. He was justly nominated for a number of awards for his performance, none of which he won, sadly.

  • Making Clarence a photographer both endears him to the audience and is not incongruous with the type of hobby popular among members of the royal family throughout the 20th century. It also contrasts the fact that although Clarence is constantly flitting around capturing events with his camera, he is unable to discern Richard’s cruelty.
  • Casting American actors for Queen Elizabeth (Annette Benning) and her brother Rivers (Robert Downey, Jr.) enhances their “otherness” in relation to the royal family. Although their accents tend to grate on the ears a bit, this aspect of Elizabeth’s identity in particular stresses the tenuous nature of her position within the hierarchy as Richard sees it.

AB and RDJ

  • Giving screen time to the princes who will be murdered in the Tower. It is all the more poignant and heart-rending when the princes are murdered because we have seen them being normal little boys, playing with their trains and being coddled by their mother. 

Ah, my young princes! ah, my tender babes!
My unblown flowers, new-appearing sweets!
If yet your gentle souls fly in the air
And be not fix’d in doom perpetual,
Hover about me with your airy wings
And hear your mother’s lamentation!

Queen Elizabeth (Annette Benning)

  • Maggie Smith. That’s all – just Maggie Smith. Being amazing, as usual. She plays the Duchess of York, Richard’s mother. Another character from the play, Queen Margaret, does not appear in the film, but her lines are appropriated to Smith’s character. She delivers them with the vehemence of a veteran Shakespearean actress.

  • The desperation and death of Lady Anne. I have always found it hard to believe that any woman could marry her husband’s murderer, how her complete hatred can do a 180 like that. (The use of the morgue as a backdrop to the “Set down you honourable load scene is very clever). I love that this film makes Lady Anne a druggie because it gives her character some logic. Not only does the film give her a wretched outlet for her self-inflicted curse, but it also shows her death, which is omitted from the play. The film allows that she may have committed suicide, though Richard expresses his intention of getting rid of her.

KST“This was my wish: ‘Be thou,’ quoth I, ‘ accursed,
For making me, so young, so old a widow!
And, when thou wed’st, let sorrow haunt thy bed;
And be thy wife—if any be so mad—
As miserable by the life of thee
As thou hast made me by my dear lord’s death!’ 
Lo, ere I can repeat this curse again,
Even in so short a space, my woman’s heart
Grossly grew captive to his honey words
And proved the subject of my own soul’s curse”

Lady Anne (Kristin Scott Thomas)

  •  The use of Christopher Marlowe’s poem “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” for the song in the party scene. The swinging big band sound that accompanies Stacey Kent’s performance adds a richer dimension to the feel of the era.

This post is written in conjunction with The Great Villain Blogathon hosted by Speakeasy, Shadows & Satin, and Silver Screenings.

Richard III

7 thoughts on ““Is There a Murderer Here?”: The Great Villainy of Richard III

  • Terence Towles Canote

    I love Shakespeare’s historical plays. Henry V is one of my favourites. And I have always enjoyed Richard III, even if I feel it unfairly vilifies Richard (I personally think the Tudors were behind the murders of the Princes in the Tower). I will have to check out the 1995 version!

  • Emily Stephan

    While I prefer the Olivier film (as you can probably tell), I love this version to pieces. Unlike the Baz Luhrman Romeo + Juliet, this RIII does a great job placing the actions of the play in an updated setting, utterly immersing us in an alternate reality. Mckellen is just wonderful too, behind and in front of the camera.

    Also I agree, a Branagh RIII would be awesome! Too bad he hasn’t touched a Shakespeare film project since that lackluster As You Like It from 2006.

    • MargaretPerry Post author

      I’m sure he’ll be back. Nobody who loves Shakespeare can leave it forever!

  • Silver Screenings

    Confession: I’ve never seen any other version of Richard III, but your post has prompted me to change that ASAP – especially the 1912(!!) version. The 1995 version does sound like a stroke of brilliance. I’m going to try to find it on Netflix. Thanks!

    Thanks for joining the blogathon with a Shakespearean villain!

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