MGM // 1995 // 104 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // September 30th, 2010
What is worth dying for...is worth killing for.
I own a lovely copy of the collected works of William Shakespeare. It's great for research and looking quotations up, but when I want to read an individual play, it gets a bit cumbersome. When I want to explore a particular play, I usually grab a cheap paperback copy from the used bookstore. This happened to me with Richard III. I bought a dollar edition of the play, and the previous owner left it untouched except for the first page. He or she had made an annotation on the play's famous first lines: "Now is the winter of our discontent / made glorious summer by this son of York." The previous reader had gingerly circled "son" in pencil, drew a line, and written "pun" in the margins. To this day I wonder why that was the only mark in the book.
This small moment continues to stick with me because it's emblematic of the problem of reading Shakespeare. I'm not one to think that Shakespeare is in any way inaccessible to the average reader, but he does take a bit of work now and again. The opening of Richard III is a prime example. On the one hand, Shakespeare is reminding the audience of certain historical facts. As the play opens, Edward IV, of the house of York, has triumphed over the Lancastrians in the English civil war (or "War of the Roses"). So the "winter of our discontent" was the previous Lancastrian triumph, and the new "glorious summer" indicates Edward's rise. On the other hand, Shakespeare is also being highly poetical. To describe these historical changes, he's using a metaphor of changing seasons, and the cause for this change is the "sun." Shakespeare is punning on sun/son of York, and further he is referencing Edward's badge, which included a picture of a sun. That's a lot to cram into two lines. It gets worse because only later in the opening speech do we learn that Richard is not speaking happily of this new summer, but is instead very displeased with the situation. So displeased, in fact, he decides to set his sights on the throne, with murder as his method.
As a dedicated Shakespearean actor, Ian McKellen was well aware of these issues when he mounted a touring production of the play in the early 1990s. With some experience in filming Shakespeare for television, and not wanting to let the part go, McKellen decided to write a screenplay adaptation of the Richard III. He slaved over the adaptation, but in the end it was obvious that he could not do the play justice in a small, television-style production. Instead, he embarked on a three-year odyssey to secure funding for his filmed vision of Richard III. The result fits easily into the top tier of filmed Shakespeare adaptations. MGM is re-releasing the previous DVD edition to coincide with its "classic adaptations" line, and the film is worth revisiting.
Although some characters have been combined or excluded for this adaptation, the basic skeleton of Shakespeare's play is intact. Richard III (Ian McKellen, Apt Pupil) has designs on the throne of Edward IV (John Wood, Chocolat), and sets in motion a series of plots that will undermine Edward's faith in his allies, allowing Richard to usurp the throne, however temporarily, before his disastrous encounter at Bosworth Field.
However, as Hamlet tells us, "the play's the thing." On that score Richard III is a triumph in every way. Ian McKellen's screenplay tightens the thematic focus on Richard and keeps the plot moving forward from opening to closing with no detours. The decision to set the film in a 1930s fascist version of Britain is inspired. It gives context to the viewer without resorting to historical descriptions or gobs of exposition and gives the film an interesting visual scheme. Finally, the casting is simply inspired. Ian McKellen in the central role is fantastic, but the inclusion of Jim Broadbent, Robert Downey Jr., and even Dominic West are equally effective. For the ladies we get performances by Annette Bening, Kristen Scott Thomas, and the always dependable Maggie Smith. Essentially, there's not a wrong step in the entire production.
For my money, McKellen's adaptation bests the classic Olivier film from 1955. Sadly, however, Criterion isn't releasing this Richard III. Nope, instead of the deluxe packaging we get a re-release of a disc from 2000. It's even a flipper, with the widescreen transfer on one side and the full frame on the other. Considering its age, it's a very solid transfer that maintains the film's old school look without any serious compression or artefacting problems. The 5.1 surround keeps Shakespeare's famous dialogue totally audible while also providing a bit of thunder during the more war-oriented scenes. That is, however, where the goodies end. There are no special features whatsoever. Interested fans can find a link to Ian McKellen's introduction to the screenplay in the Accomplices section of this review, but he does not appear in any featurettes, despite his obvious love of discussing Shakespeare. The only addition to the previous DVD is a new cardboard cover meant to coordinate with other MGM adaptation DVDs. They claim you can cut out a bookmark from the cover, which I guess is a special feature.
Although this is a disappointing release from a supplements perspective, I hope it gives Ian McKellen's Richard III a new visibility in the marketplace. He handily proves that Shakespeare need not be any more dull or difficult than a modern political drama, and the film is easy to recommend to fans of any of the actors. The film is especially recommended to those looking to dip their toes into the waters of Shakespeare adaptations.
Although the winter of our discontent is not made glorious summer by this DVD, Richard III is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Release Year: 1995
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Ian McKellen's Screenplay