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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).

The Tragedy of Macbeth (1971) | Did Roman Polanski’s bloody adaptation inspire TV’s Game of Thrones

The Tragedy of Macbeth (1971)

If ever there was a cinematic Shakespeare adaptation that would click with audiences today, it has to be Roman Polanski’s controversial 1971 interpretation of ‘the Scottish play’. Featuring hangings, bludgeonings, stabbings, rape, infanticide and decapitation, it’s certainly a bloody affair, but no more than you’d get in an episode of Game of Thrones. It also brings Shakespeare’s drama to vivid, believeable, life with its accessible, engaging translation of the Bard’s verse.

And this is thanks to Polanski and his co-writer, the London theatre critic, Kenneth Tynan, and a cast of young actors who speak the words in a totally naturalistic way.  These include Jon Finch (whom John Gieglud praised for his delivery) as the power-hungry chieftain Macbeth, Francesca Annis as his co-conspirator Lady Macbeth, and Martin Shaw as Banquo, the one-time friend that Macbeth murders in order to keep his unsteady crown.

The Tragedy of Macbeth (1971)

Adding to the film’s realism is Gilbert Taylor’s dramatic, moody photography and the striking use of the stark landscapes and real-life castles in Wales and Northumberland. Watching it today, you can’t help but compare it again with Games of Thrones, as the settings could easily be located anywhere in Westeros. And since Shakespeare’s The War of the Roses history plays are said to have been George RR Martin’s inspiration for his novels, Polanski’s masterpiece could very well have played a role in the look of the TV show.

While much of the film’s darkness could be read as Polanski’s way of dealing with the tragic murder of his wife Sharon Tate and his unborn child at the hands of the Manson Family, if his intention was to create an adaptation that captured the true essence of Shakespeare’s bleak classic tragedy then he certainly succeeded, and with an atmosphere as thick as the witches’ brew that features in one of the film’s most memorable scenes.

Boasting Anthony Mendleson’s Bafta-winning period costumes and a sparring, evocative score from Third Ear Band, this compelling modern interpretation is something very special indeed and should be required viewing for anyone studying the Bard. Thank heavens Hugh Hefner’s Playboy company came to the rescue when they did, as we’d never have this cinematic masterpiece to vent its sound and fury all over again on Blu-ray.

The Tragedy of Macbeth (1971)

Roman Polanski’s The Tragedy of Macbeth is out on Blu-ray as part of the first wave of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment’s launch of The Criterion Collection in the UK.

The director-approved edition features the 4k digital restoration of the film transferred 35mm original camera negative and a new 3.0 surround soundtrack, that was created for the US Criterion release (and it looks absoultely fantastic) and it also includes the same bonus features:

Toil and Trouble: Making Macbeth: This 60-minute 2014 documentary features Roman Polanski, producer Andrew Braunsberg, former Playboy executive Victor Lowner, and actors Martin Shaw and Francesca Annis discussing the film’s production history. Catch a sneak peek below.
Polanski Meets Macbeth: Frank Simon’s 48-min 1971 documentary is a must-see as it features Polanski and the cast and crew at work and on location.
Dick Cavett and Kenneth Tynan: An archive TV interview from 7 May, 1971.
Two Macbeths: A 31-minute segment from Aquarius (27 January 1972) in which director Polanski explains talks about his inspiration for making the film.
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Falstaff: Chimes At Midnight (1966) | Orson Welles’ personal best gets a 50th anniversary restoration release

Falstaff Chimes at Midnight (1966)

If I wanted to get into heaven on the basis of movie, it would be Falstaff’ Orson Welles

As part of the centenary celebrations of Orson Welles’ birth, 1966’s Falstaff Chimes at Midnight, one of the most radical and groundbreaking of all Shakespeare film adaptations and Welles’ favourite of his features, has been restored and released on DVD and Blu-ray from Mr Bongo Films.

Falstaff Chimes at Midnight (1966)

‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’
On the brink of Civil War, King Henry IV (John Gielgud) attempts to consolidate his reign while fretting with unease over his son’s seeming neglect of his royal duties. Hal (Keith Baxter), the young Prince, openly consorts with Sir John Falstaff (Orson Welles) and his company. Hal’s friendship with the knight substitutes for his estrangement from his father. Both Falstaff and the King are old and tired; both rely on Hal for comfort in their final years, while the young Prince, the future Henry V, nurtures his own ambitions…

Falstaff Chimes at Midnight (1966)

‘A magnificent film, clearly among Welles’ greatest work’ Roger Ebert
A reworking of his 1939 and 1960 play Five Kings, this is, in Welles’ own words, ‘a sombre comedy’ and a ‘lament for Merrie England’. It may have come late in his career, but it remains his masterpiece, containing the true and profound essence of both Shakespeare the dramatist and Welles the actor. His Falstaff was the role he was born to play, the embodiment of the richly human, honest and heroic qualities of medieval England whose openness and loyalty eventually become the very cause of his own destruction.

The talented supporting cast includes John Gielgud, Keith Baxter, Jeanne Moreau, Fernando Rey, Margaret Rutherford and Ralph Richardson as the narrator. The film’s harrowing war scenes have proven especially influential, cited in Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V and Mel Gibson’s Braveheart.

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