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Richard III (1995) | When Shakespeare’s classic tragedy got a 1930s fascistic spin

Richard III

Ian McKellen is wickedly witty as the withered-armed king Richard III in this powerful adaptation that packs a punch and then some…

Richard III

When it comes to film adaptations of Shakespeare, it’s Baz Luhrman’s Romeo & Juliet, Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V and Lawrence Olivier’s Hamlet that first come to mind. But 1995’s Richard III should really be counted among them.

Ian McKellen might be better known for playing Gandalf and Magneto in the blockbuster Lord of the Rings and X-Men franchises, but the knighted stage thespian admits he might not have got those parts had it not been for this labour of love, which he wrote the screenplay for based on the successful stage production that he also starred in.

Sporting a pencil-thin moustache, flat 1930s-styled greased and combed hair, and dressed in fascist military attire, his power-crazed Richard, Duke of Gloucester is a clever creation, witty and wicked, yet monstrously mad. He is the tyrant personified, whose deformities (twisted spine, dodgy eye and war-damaged scarred face) cause disgust in others and, in turn, are the root of his wickedness – as is hatred for his abusive mother (played by Dame Maggie Smith in full Downton Abbey mode). And he invites us to become part of his evil schemes by fixing us with his dodgy eye and breaking the fourth wall to utter some of Shakespeare’s most memorable prose.

Richard III

McKellen has made a career out of playing Shakespeare on stage, so he knows how to craft a screenplay that remains true to the Bard’s words. But he’s ditched the archaic, which not only makes the verse more accessible, it serves to highlight Shakespeare’s ingenuity.

Director Richard Loncraine brings a cinematic eye that makes a perfect fit to McKellen’s vision. By dressing the tragedy in the aesthetic of the Third Reich, he shines a light on the pure evil at the heart of Richard’s devious agenda that results in his bloody, brief, rise to dictatorship.

But while Shakespeare and McKellen are the big draw in this condensed cartoon-like confection, so are the magnificent London locations, including those Brutalist beauties, Bankside and Battersea Power Stations, and the Art Deco Senate House at the University of London, which help give the film a grand sense of scale on a modest budget.

Richard III

Featuring an all-star cast, including Kristin Scott Thomas, Robert Downey Jr, Annette Bening, Jim Broadbent, Nigel Hawthorne, a young Dominic West, plus lots of future Downton Abbey faces, Richard III gets a timely release on dual format following a re-master from the BFI.  The special extras include a new audio commentary with  McKellen and Loncraine, an engrossing 79-minute BFI lecture by McKellen about Shakespeare on stage and screen, and an illustrated booklet with an essay by McKellen. An annotated screenplay is also included as a pdf (on the DVD).

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