In "Richard III," the play's not the thing, the production is.
Certainly the first film of a Shakespearian play that could be legitimately called "wacky," Richard Loncraine's version of the play, with the great Ian McKellen in the title role (Loncraine and McKellen wrote the screenplay, from a production by Richard Eyre), works such severe dislocations in time and place that the setting itself becomes the subject of the play, not Richard's evil ambitions.
They say if a thing is worth doing, it's worth doing well. They also say if somebody loves you, it's no good unless they love you all the way. Well, this "Richard" goes all the way, so in love is it with its new wrinkle. And, one has to say, it's done well. One point, however, is never raised: Is it worth doing at all?
Loncraine and McKellen have uprooted "Richard" from its comfy 15th century and deposited it with a thud in the fourth decade of the 20th century, in a brownshirt '30s Britannia that only existed in Oswald Moseley's most hyperfervid fantasies. It's a parallel world, imagined adroitly down to the tiniest detail, almost a dystopian fantasy spun from one of the most rooted of Shakespeare's texts.
"Hamlet," after all, could play on the deck of the Starship Enterprise; "A Midsummer Night's Dream" could unspool at Stonehenge, England, or Stone Mountain, Ga. In fact, the canon is full of legendary Shakespearian dislocations, complete to Orson Welles' voodoo "Macbeth" in the '30s and MGM's transfer of "The Tempest" to a far orb in "Forbidden Planet." Well and good, but take "Richard" out of the War of the Roses and you've changed the essential nature of the play; you've made it something different.
The production revels in its differentness, in fact. Our first images, only slightly dislocating, watch as King Henry and his son Prince Edward prepare for bed in a commandeered country estate after a hard day's campaigning in the civil wars. There's a rumble, and that tank crunching through the wall and those begoggled commandos leaping from it with assault rifles blazing convey the information that this will be like no other Shakespeare ever.
Loncraine and McKellen have cut the text to the bone, slashing, slashing, slashing, getting it down to their idea of movie length and sending it hurtling along at movie pace and leaving only room for movie effects. What remains is a lot of killing (Robert Downey, playing the new queen's brother, gets it while lying abed, from a thrust that rises out of his chest, exactly as did, believe it or not, Kevin Bacon all those years ago in the original "Friday the 13th.")
All the way through, we are consistently overwhelmed by the ravishing details with which the production has been jammed. It's an Art Deco universe, a kind of animated Arrow Shirt ad world. Gowns, Rolls-Royces, smoky corridors (everybody smokes), the radio, big bands, even a sleek bi-plane on the edge of streamlined, slick uniforms, political rallies. . . . There's never a dull moment, except in the movie.
What has vanished is the poetry. Shakespeare's lines clatter emptily among the great effects; you're always trying to pull yourself out of the visuals and catch up with the plot, which races from execution to ball to execution. Characters come and go so fast you can't tell them without a scorecard. There's no sense, oddly, of Shakespeare at all, because there seems to be such a random connection between the production and the text. It's more like a psychotic "Upstairs, Downstairs."
The supporting performances just whistle by. Annette Bening and Downey seem miscast, and great actors like Maggie Smith, Nigel Hawthorne and John Wood never really register, familiar as cameos but not fully developed as performances. Rather, some of the lesser people do, such as Adrian Dunbar, as Tyrell, Richard's murderous henchman, and Jim Broadbent as the obsequious toadie Buckingham.
McKellen seems a more intellectualized Richard than Olivier's, which is the baseline Richard of memory for most movie-goers. Olivier was a titan of evil, an ugly spider of a man who drew you in through the dynamism of his charisma. By contrast, McKellen seems a cool customer, always calculating, but still a figure of great discipline. He's more military than Olivier, with white sidewalls and ramrod posture. He seems to live with pain, with that dapper little moustache standing against fiercely visaged face, an insolent cigarette hanging from his lips.
He doesn't move us emotionally so much as fascinate with his reptilian grace and cunning. It's hardly great, but it's completely mesmerizing.
Starring Ian McKellen and Annette Bening
Directed by Richard Loncraine
Released by United Artists
Rated R (volence)