Criterion // 1955 // 158 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // April 23rd, 2013
"One of the most visually inspired of all big-screen Bard adaptations."
After several months of searching, the body of Richard III was discovered under a city park after more than 600 years of anonymity. The former king was buried with little ceremony in a church that was later demolished when Henry VIII broke with Rome. Since then, little thought has gone to the grave's location, but a body has been found with scoliosis and severe injuries consistent both with Richard's demise and contemporary accounts of his apparent "deformities." DNA confirmed via tireless genealogical research made the case all-but-definitive. Historians -- and Richard III partisans -- were delighted. A facial reconstruction by a forensic artist was even performed, and funnily enough, it's likely that Richard III looked surprisingly like Laurence Olivier playing Richard III in his adaptation of Shakespeare's play. With this beautiful new hi-def transfer, fans can use the Richard III (Blu-ray) to reach their own conclusions about Olivier's portrait of the controversial king.
Richard III (Laurence Olivier, who also directs) has his eyes on the English throne. All that stands in his way is a dying queen and a brother (John Gielgud, Gandhi) in the line of succession. Being a villain, Richard dispatches his brother, woos the wife of a former king, and once he's named Lord Protector after the death of the current king sets about dispatching his nephews so that he may assume the throne himself. Unsurprisingly for a Shakespeare play, all does not end well.
On stage, Laurence Olivier had played much of the Shakespearean canon, with his Henry V being particularly well-received. Films are a different proposition altogether, and it seems that the world is much more tolerant of numerous Shakespeare adaptations when they're on the stage. In contrast, it seems like at least a decade is necessary between screen adaptations, and often its best to wait two or three. Thus, after the commercial and artistic triumph of Henry V, Olivier found himself wanting to do more Shakespeare but his options were limited by other successful adaptations. Orson Welles beat him to Macbeth not long after World War II, and two years before Richard III, Brando tackled Julius Caesar. Too young to tackle King Lear or The Tempest, Olivier opted to play the villain for the first time in his Shakespeare film career.
Of course, having the beautiful hero play the "deformed" villain fits perfectly with the contradictions of Richard III. On the one hand, the play is resolutely a history, steeped in the machinations of courtly politics and the terrors over successions (both at the time of Richard III and the time of writing and performance during the reign of Elizabeth I). The play is thus a carefully observed example of a telling of a kind of history. Playgoers were expected to be familiar with both the historical situation (barely a hundred years back) as well as Shakespeare's "prequels" in the Henry VI plays.
On the other hand, Richard III is a set of psychological portraits, or perhaps a single psychological portrait in its protagonist, Richard III. In scene after scene Richard offers us his villainy as an object of fascination. He explains his deeds, woos a widow, and ultimately falls before us. If he ordered half of the nasty things he's accused of then he was a terrible person, and yet Shakespeare does not give us a static picture of a nasty person. Instead, Richard III is alive with contradictions, intelligence, and wit. The rest of the cast aren't as well drawn. For instance, it's always hard to believe that anyone can be wooed by Richard, but neither are they cardboard cutouts shuffled around by history (or by Richard). Poignant moments, like the murder of Clarence, abound.
The only problem is that all of this makes the play very difficult to adapt. It also doesn't help that it's the second-longest of Shakespeare's plays (behind the truly mammoth Hamlet). Even at two hours and forty minutes, Olivier's Richard III has to collapse characters and transpose dialogue to give us a prayer of understanding what's going on. Even for someone familiar with the play it can be kind of difficult to tell all the old British guys apart. Perhaps more importantly, Olivier never quite finds a way to get the audience invested in courtly politics (unlike say Ian McKellen does in his Richard III by transporting everything into a Nazi context). So, while Richard III is gorgeously produced and obviously a product of love, contemporary audiences will have to work to get anything out of it.
The most obvious pleasure of Richard III is the VistaVision cinematography. Even if you couldn't care a fig for those boys in the Tower, the film looks beautiful. That cinematography is presented near-perfectly on this 1.66:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer from the 2012 restoration of the film. This is one of the more film-like transfers I've seen on Blu-ray. Detail and texture are strong throughout (important in a costume drama), while the VistaVision colors are accurate and well-saturated. Black levels are deep and consistent, and grain looks natural and digitally unaltered. Fans of the flick should upgrade for the improved visuals alone. The LPCM 1.0 track does what it can with a fifty-plus year old soundtrack -- dialogue is clean and audible, with a well-balanced (though bombastic) score. It doesn't sound as rich and detailed as a contemporary track would, but this is a honest representation of the film's audio. I like to watch Shakespeare adaptations with subtitles on, and Criterion has helpfully provided them in this release.
Extras mirror the previous two-disc DVD set and kick off with a commentary featuring playwright/director Russell Lees and John Wilders of the Royal Shakespeare Company (recorded separately). The pair discuss a wide range of topics, focusing especially on the adaptation of the play into the film, but also including info on Olivier and the production of the film. We also get an episode of Great Acting which is basically an interview between Olivier and critic Kenneth Tynan. Richard III was also famously broadcast on TV, and we get a 12-minute trailer for the film, along with a gallery of production and advertising materials set along excerpts from Olivier's autobiography. The film's theatrical trailer is also included. The usual Criterion booklet includes a nice remembrance and appreciation for the film from Amy Taubin.
Richard III is a strong attempt to adapt Shakespeare's difficult play. Olivier owns the screen and isn't afraid to revel in it. If it falls below the level of his previous efforts (and won't be as engaging to most contemporary viewers as McKellen's attempt), that's not for lack of trying. Olivier cast excellent actors in a lavishly produced film that does some interesting things with the play. In light of the recent rediscovery of Richard III's body, history buffs and Shakespeare fans could do much worse than this adaptation. As for this specific release, the video is improved sufficiently to recommend to fans.
Richard might be guilty, but Richard III (Blu-ray) is not.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 158 Minutes
Release Year: 1955
MPAA Rating: Not Rated