"Now is the winter of our discontent…"
It seems that in all facets of literature, the villain is far more mythical and memorable than the hero. From the Wicked Witch of the West, who wants the ruby slippers from a dead Dorothy's feet, to Rumplestiltskin, whose payment for teaching a young miller's daughter "golden" alchemy is a newborn baby, the obsessions and mania of the evildoer are far more seductive and enigmatic than the blank face or buff body of the conquering champion. Perhaps it is because we secretly long to act out the desperate desires of the scoundrel. We all experience a Jekyll-and-Hyde fascination with want. Or maybe it's because we wish to witness justice in action, to see the rotter get his dog day. After all, there must be unfairness to give way to the requisite recompense. But a better belief is that, as performance entities, desperados are usually such well-rounded characters. They move through all phases of life, good and bad, sound and insane. They experience existence more fully, allowing their souls and their sins to change and be stained by the unbridled action of indulging in their longings. True, their actions are abhorrent and selfish and they usually leave a path of despair and disdain around them, but as they breathe, we entreat their company and love to be in on their plots. And, the higher the station, the juicer the conspiracy. Thus when Richard, Duke of Gloucester, plots to gain the throne from his feeble brother, Edward, we are eager to experience the malevolence within. It tickles our tabloid mentality to know that even royalty suffers from insecurity, deviousness, and envy. And as Shakespeare noted in his magnificent work of theatrical treachery, "Richard III" (new to DVD from the Criterion Collection), there is nothing more glorious than a rogue in the full flower of felony.
Facts of the Case
It is just after the Wars of the Roses. King Edward IV is seated on the throne of England. The bitter civil war between the Yorks and the Lancasters is finally over. Unhappy that he does not wear the crown, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, conspires to overthrow his brother's regime from the inside out. First, he marries the widow Anne, a Lancaster noblewoman once married to a man Richard killed in battle. He then has his brother George, the Duke of Clarence, falsely accused and executed. He makes the King believe the death is his fault, and Edward's already failing health deteriorates further. When Edward finally dies, Richard is left as the guardian to the future King and protector of Edward's young sons. He then has everyone surrounding the young princes, from Lord Hastings to the relatives of their mother, Elizabeth, killed. With the help of close ally Lord Buckingham, the heirs to the throne are murdered, and Richard is crowned King.
But Richard is a very unpopular monarch. All, from peasants to noblemen, find him abhorrent and begin turning their backs on him. The Earl of Richmond, a descendant of the defeated Lancasters, invades England and challenges Richard's authority. Richard betrays Buckingham, and the devastated Duke joins up with other nobles to aid the challenging army. Richard tries to consolidate his control by killing his wife, Anne, and marrying Elizabeth (his cousin). Events forestall the union, and Richard is forced to meet Richmond on the battlefield. The night before the clash, Richard has a dream in which the faces of those he's wronged flash before him and condemn his reign of terror. Richard is killed by Richmond, and, again, a Lancaster holds the throne of England.
For anyone who has ever sat through a class on William Shakespeare with either rapturous attentiveness or mind-numbing boredom, there is one guaranteed bit of gobbledygook that even the most brain-dead dolt managed to retain. The droning repetition of the tragic hero mantra is something few forget. From the standard "fatal flaw" prerequisite to the more poetic notion of literature's legendary protagonists being perfect statues with a fissure at their bases, everyone gets that faults, not clothes, unmake the man. Now, most educated individuals acknowledge that Hamlet, Macbeth, and other heroic hotshots fit this mold completely. They all are cracked at their bases, merely waiting for the defects to empty them from the inside out. But is there such a thing as a tragic villain? Can a character based in skullduggery and deception be anything other than reprehensible? And if he can be, how do we measure said trait against the vileness of his actions? It would make sense in some purely polar reality. In "Richard III," Shakespeare dares to do this something different. He dares to take a rogue, a common jackanapes pretender to the throne and, through the individual's masterful manipulation, heinous criminal acts, and horrid manifestations of amorality create a likeable, lamentable leading role. And he succeeds royally, thanks in most part to how Sir Laurence Olivier re-imagines him in his 1955 film version of Richard III. This humpbacked bad guy is the world's first legitimate antihero, the kind of villainous, vile toady that we can't help but root for. All of Shakespeare's presumptions about human nature were correct. When surrounded by the pious, the passive, and the pathetic, an audience will be instantly drawn to and celebrate the scoundrel.
Poor Richard is indeed set upon by a confederacy of dunces. His older brother, King Edward, is an infirmed nincompoop who uses omens and portents to set policy and make decisions. His other brother, George, is a trusting and gentle soul who seems too fragile to be part of such a powerful clan. Edward's offspring, the pug and prudish princes, are both like little overripe piglets, just waiting for the silver platter slaughter. The fact that they resemble each other in their puffy angelic jaundice makes their eventual suffocation that much more sweet. Even Buckingham, Richard's faithful friend and collaborator in deviousness, eventually shows his true tame colors. He is a man as consumed with corruption and power as Richard, but with none of the connections or courage to enact his desires. He must rely on and live through his royal pal in hopes that, when the time comes, his friendship will be rewarded. Richard may be the driving force behind all this death and destruction, but nature and fate also play a part in it as well. He is enveloped in a world of individual inferiors, trapped in a court of crackpots and crudities that make the very blue blood in his imperial veins boil and clot with rage. Richard is not on a personal quest so much as a primogenitor crusade. He is out to rid the realm of the weak links that caused the civil unrest in the first place. Richard understands that when he takes the throne, there will at last be a true and durable peace. He will bring balance back to this farce. But first, he must act as a sovereign savior and a sovereignty assassin.
Many people argue over whether Richard does have such a noble purpose to his overthrow, or whether he is just outright evil: a twisted apparition of unbridled darkness who casts a gloomy pall over all who stand in his way. From his cunning skill at undermining power to how expertly he cultivates favor and followers, he definitely has an air of unbridled opportunist about him, channeled through a cutthroat pirate mentality. So if wickedness is also based in aptitude, Richard is definitely a bloodthirsty genius. He is not some sordid serial murderer who uses the brains and the bravery lavished upon him by advanced psychosis to slaughter all in his path. No, Richard III is a man of principled planning and the prolonging of pain. He understands inherently what is required to eradicate each obstacle in his path in order to reach his ultimate goal. Then he merely goes about removing these barriers from his sordid stride. From the use of prophecy and dreams to the outright corruption of authority, Richard stays several steps ahead of the game until he has won so completely that there is no further fear of reprisal. He has finally conquered everything inside his world. That is why it takes Richmond, a redeemer from outside the situation, to ride in on a white horse and defeat the evil. Richard may be a mangled man of defective body parts, but his mind is a clear, crystal ball, polished and always poised to help him find another figment of fiendishness to inflict. Yet he is not so much depraved as empty and envious, which can be far more powerful than evil any day.
All of this intrigue would obviously make for a rousing, redolent play full of gripping suspense and guilty guile. The only problem is the narrative and its language are soaked in the arcane world of Elizabethan England. This is the Bard, after all, and Shakespeare is notorious for being rough on the responsiveness of present-day audiences. People aren't used to hearing characters speak in iambic pentameter, measured quatrains, or rhyming couplets, and the notion of experiencing malevolence as filtered through a lot of "thees" and "thous" does not inspire appreciation of the sinister. Some filmmakers have tried to overcome this curse by recasting "Richard III" in modern times. Sir Ian McKellen starred in a 1995 version in which Britain was turned into a fascist dictatorship and Richard a Hitler-like goon. Stage versions have taken the tired, esoteric speech patterns and forged them into a more conversational tone, hoping that audiences would more easily accept and understand the passions and politics at play. Even Al Pacino made the marvelous documentary Looking for Richard that discussed the difficulty in deciphering the royal rascal's intentions. Yet such altering begs the question of authenticity. While this is not a sound historical interpretation of Richard's reign, time and setting are as important to "Richard III" as Shakespeare's poetic mastery of the language. And without a doubt, the most magical and magnificent version of this theatrical treat retains all the original period costume flavor and pompous pronouncements while also never once letting the audience forget how contemporary the sensibilities within actually are. A masterpiece of style, story, acting, and atmosphere, Sir Laurence Olivier's 1955 Richard III is, perhaps, the best Shakespearian adaptation ever and a thoroughly modern tale of Machiavellian malfeasance.
Olivier's handling of this difficult, complex narrative is indeed spectacular. He manages to find both a visual style and an acting mannerism that perfectly underline his themes and tone. Everything here is enhanced by several of the celebrated choices he makes. It is easy to liken his vision of Richard III to that of a fairytale, albeit a rather course and brutish one. When one recalls the levels of violence and darkness infused inside a Hans Christian Anderson or Brothers Grimm fable, the connection becomes all the stronger. Olivier utilizes Technicolor sets of glorious primary magic to infuse the events with an otherworldly, fictional force. But he is not afraid to throw on the darkness. Shadows run rampant in this film, flowing over sets and scenes, casting their opaque, onerous quality onto one and all. Indeed, Olivier lets the camera linger as the gloom grows and morphs, blanketing objects and people like the angel of death. It is one of the strongest and most successful devices in Olivier's directorial bag of tricks. Windows are also a terrific thematic mechanism in Richard III. Scenes are witnessed through them, they frame events and, occasionally, said openings are closed so that true, malevolent evil can be practiced behind them. We witness George's final hours through a jailhouse opening. The King's delusional orders, based on bewitched visions and dreams, are overheard as Richard passes by a series of shuttered panels. We, too, are meant to be actively involved in this story as well as hear it unfold from the position of interloper and eavesdropper.
There is also a deft handling by Olivier of the multiple means of manipulation Richard employs. Olivier views each methodology in a different, deceptive light. When the supernatural is involved, he keeps the tone completely in fairy story mood. The colors are blinding and bright. When Richard seduces Anne, the light is softened to suggest romance and suave charm. False promises and underhanded commitments have a shroud of secrecy and a souring of gray. When Richard makes libelous statements against fellow noblemen, Olivier casts the scenes in the practical light of day, on the fully lit court, or with the sun as a backdrop, obviously to symbolize that Richard's accusations couldn't stand in the light. Indeed, it is only when the rogue is required to use his power and age, his true individual attributes, that the framing becomes funny. Olivier loves to place Richard either dead center or slightly off center, inferring that Richard is indeed a part of everything that goes on. He also lets him wander in from above and below, reinforcing the otherworldly power he has. But then there are times when the camera tracks up, like the eye of God. It looks down on the kingdom and illustrates the notion of a higher power watching over, counting the vices and keeping metaphysical tabs on the participants. Richard is shaking the very foundations of fate when he tempts it and alters it so. Olivier lets you understand this visually, so that if the words fail you, the images will not.
But perhaps the most intriguing decision made by Olivier is to have Richard be the only character to speak directly to the camera. He breaks down the fourth wall to invite the audience in, both as witnesses and participants to his deed. In reality, we become Richard's sounding board, a much-needed silent advisor who lets him reason situations aloud to himself without offering assistance or resistance. In what has to be the very definition of a tour de force, Olivier primps, preens, cajoles, laments, lashes out, and gossips his way through a series of stellar soliloquies and monologues, each one adding elements of understanding and danger to his character. No other character is so forward to the followers in the theater (or in this case, their own home). Everyone, from Buckingham to George, calls upon his muse in a very personal, focused manner. We are overhearing their confessions and conundrums, but are not actively involved in them. But Richard needs reassurance and constant support. And he gets it in the form of our silent consent. Along with the symbol of the crown, hung like an albatross and a prize above the throne of England, the notion that we are part of Richard's plans makes the majesty, the menace, and the magic of Richard III truly come to life. The oversized circlet, poised like an axe to fall or a talisman of supreme power, highlights just what is at stake here. And Olivier's brilliant performance, nearly flawless in its imagination and execution, adds the final, fatal piece to the puzzle.
And the rest of the cast is right there beside him, giving the kind of knockout acting interpretations that benchmarks are born from. Sir Ralph Richardson has the difficult task of turning Buckingham from a fiend into a victim, from a confidant into a similarly used soul. He manages both tasks magnificently and, in a couple of cases, manages to steal scenes away from Richard himself. Similarly, Sir John Gielgud must tread the fine line between simp and sap to give George a dignity in death that in life no one ever truly admired. In her scenes with Olivier, Claire Bloom sparkles as the betrayed and now betrothed Anne and Alec Clunes's Lord Hastings is a seamless amalgamation of dedicated nobleman and clueless catalyst: his death is less of a tragedy and more of an expected consequence of his lack of concern. From Cedric Hardwicke's unstable King Edward to Mary Kerridge's stern Queen Elizabeth, the entire ensemble works together to fashion this film into a remarkable work of literary lightning. This is an electric, energetic telling of the tale. But it is Sir Laurence Olivier, that icon of acting craft, who disappears behind the blood pudding pageboy hairdo and long-as-a-rat's-snout nose to completely inhabit Richard. None of the arch, obvious mannerisms he is known for make an appearance in this lesson in performance perfection. There is never a time when you don't believe that he is not the crippled, corrupt king. Thankfully, Olivier's skill as a director matches his thespian chops, meaning that Richard III is one of the best-acted and -directed films from a Shakespeare play ever committed to celluloid.
For all its unfathomable language, over-scheming storytelling, and rapid repartee, for all the conniving, calculating, and double crossing, Richard III ends up being one man's journey into the darkest recesses of his own soul, only to come out the other side a bitter, pathetic shell. Here is a sad, yet surprisingly spry, villain who wants nothing more than to be adored, worshiped, and called King. He goes about his devilish business with a smart, surgical precision that deserves respect and awe, as well as disgust. But when he finally achieves his goal, when Richard gains the crown and the rule of Britain, his is not a supremacy of sweet success but a telling reign of blows. All his confidants abandon him, and, with his enemies dead or in exile, he is protected in a cocoon of perceived safety. But out in the ether, in the shadow world of the supernatural that he has so readily chided for his purposes, the legions of the dead are preparing for him. For no great evil can rise without falling, no matter how well planned or perfect his treachery. Call him a scoundrel or a scourge, the biggest bastard in all of literature or the most misunderstood man who would be (and was) King, but Richard III is also tragedy personified. Compelled to live a life in a distorted body that denies him respect, he seeks revenge and relief from inner pain and outer shame. When he dreams his final nightmare of conquered corpses in condemnation, the specters ask him for only one thing: to "despair…and die!" Heavy may be the head that wears the crown, but in Richard III's case, the placement thereof was illegitimate to start with. The coronet has moved inside the misshapen frame of the wicked despot and tainted his very essence. Absolute power has corrupted absolutely. And in the end, the penalty is again paid in blood.
Fans of the Bard, Olivier, and/or the great works of film on disc will want to own this DVD immediately. Criterion does such a stupendous job with this package that it acts not only as a wonderful representation of Olivier's vision, but as a cinematic artifact to the film and its legacy as well. From the copious extras to the marvelous visual splendor, Richard III is a masterpiece of digital craftsmanship. Beginning with the stunningly gorgeous 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen image, your eyes won't believe the paranormal radiance they are witnessing. The colors are crisp and vibrant with only a few minor moments of fading or loss of depth. The shadows are black and intense, and the overall transfer glimmers with opulence and wealth. Sonically, the Dolby Digital Mono preserves the passion in Sir William Walton's bombastic, beautiful score without ever giving way to tinniness or distortion. The all-important dialogue is kept pristine and pronounced so that every bit of Shakespeare's verbal poetry can be enjoyed intact. If this were all that Criterion did, they'd be championed for their safeguarding of one of the great works of film and literature.
But they continue on, offering a full-blown analytical commentary of the film itself and a wealth of riches on a second, supplemental disc. Looking to this second DVD for extra offerings, we are privy to a series of spectacular special events. First is a near-hour-long interview with Olivier by famous British theater critic Kenneth Tynan for a show called Great Acting. Filmed in black and white and encompassing Olivier's career until 1966, it's a wonderful walk through this gifted man's myth and mystery. Olivier is open and honest, discussing at length his preparation for Hamlet and Henry V and why he was initially reluctant about filming Richard. He also makes the startling statement that his performance in the film (Richard III) is based partly on an old English comic, but mostly on that staple of Mother Goose mayhem, the "big bad wolf." The comments about "Othello" and race are also illuminating, as are the clips shown throughout. Elsewhere on Disc Two is a 12-minute television trailer for the film (obviously used as both publicity and a marketing tool for potential purchasers) that gives you a dry but decent behind-the-scenes look at how the film was created. Interspersed with installments from Olivier's autobiography, the gallery of onset and production stills feels like a read-along look at the making of this magnificent movie, and the original trailer shows how easy it was to sell this film's inner majesty.
But by far the best bonus is the thorough, very detailed, and well-reasoned commentary track. A duo affair featuring director Russell Lees with occasional input from John Wilders (former governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company), this is a rich, robust, and extremely detailed discussion and dissection. Lees walks us through almost every aspect of the play and its adaptation to film. He discusses the radical changes Olivier made to the text of the original Shakespeare work, the inclusion of material from the companion pieces of "Richard III" (it was the last installment of an intended quadrilogy about the Houses of York and Lancaster that includes the three-part Henry VI), and the different interpretations the actors bring to the their roles. Wilders, on the other hand, reserves many of his comments for the formal structure of Shakespeare's drama, the use of verse, and the history of Elizabethan theater. There is a lot of scrutiny, debate over themes and visual cues and the historical accuracy of the facts and details presented. There is also much praise for Olivier, both as an actor and a director, and the rest of the cast, too, get their accolades. If you watch the film and still feel a tad flummoxed by the language and the power politics at play, listening to this commentary will smooth out all the rough spots. It will give you the grand appreciation of both Shakespeare's art and Olivier's craft that "Richard III" so richly deserves.
For some, the works of Shakespeare resonate like algebra or trigonometry, the harshest lessons taught inside the most terrible time of life: adolescence. For others, he represents an outdated ideal of theatricality that cannot speak to a modern audience. In the last two decades, Kenneth Branagh has made it a goal to reinvent the Bard for the common man. His versions of Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing (and, to a lesser extent, Love's Labour's Lost) have opened the door for cynical Cineplex audiences to embrace the beauty of these marvelous works in a way that is comfortable while respectful of the text. Baz Luhrmann also updated "Romeo and Juliet" to make it sparkle with a music video flare. But no matter what kind of coating is placed upon it, or strange casting choices thrust into it, for many, Shakespeare is still Shakespeare, that boring old fart fudger of the English language, that procurer of flowery tart drivel that makes their rears ache and their GPAs dive just thinking about it. But there is a real cure for such puerile perceptions, and it is Laurence Olivier's resplendent version of Richard III. As bright as a baby's nursery and as coldly calculating as any flesh-eating psychopath, this is a contemporary story made in the traditional sense, an old-fashioned costume drama dripping with post-modern idealism and bile. Even those who find the Bard a bother can cuddle up to the icy evil of Richard. He is a villain and a hero in every sense of each word. He longs for that which he cannot gain respectfully and achieves his goal through malevolently murderous intent. Everyone loves the bad guy. And none have had more heroic heinousness in their heart than Richard III.
Not guilty! Not guilty! Not guilty! Richard III is free to go, as it is a masterpiece of theatrical filmmaking, and Criterion, too, is acquitted. This is a fantastic DVD package.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Playwright and Stage Director Russell Lees and John Wilders, Former Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company
Review content copyright © 2004 Bill Gibron; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.