Based on Richard Eyre’s stage production, this retelling of Shakespeare’s Richard III is transported about 500 years forward into an alternative Britain of the 1930s. This dramatic change in setting works well and the fascist tendencies of the main character allows the production design to borrow infamous style ideas from the period.
The film opens with the final battle in a civil war as the York family retakes the throne from Henry VI and reinstates King Edward IV (John Wood). However, Edward’s youngest brother, Richard (Ian McKellen), the Duke of Gloucester, is jealous and plots a takeover. He works his way through the family by having those in succession ahead of him removed. His older brother Clarence (Nigel Hawthorne) is imprisoned and murdered within the Tower of London. When Edward IV dies, Richard feigns his reluctance at accepting the position of Protector. He quickly hustles Edward’s sons into the Tower of London and spreads rumors of their legitimacy. He is designated King Richard III, but his actions have cost him key allies and lead to rebellion.
Richard is a complex figure who gives into his whims and desires. At times, he can be very strong, filled with great deviousness and charm, while other moments he is found suffering paranoia and nightmares. He is infatuated with Lady Anne (Kirsten Scott Thomas) whose husband Edward, Prince of Wales, he murdered, yet he is able to bend her rage and beguile her into marriage. She is shown to have some type of narcotic addiction. When any of the nobles in his inner circle show hesitation in going along with his plans, Richard has them disposed of quickly, which leads to his downfall.
McKellen appears to be having great fun playing this wretched, amoral person, almost offering knowing winks in the many asides to the audience yet never breaking character. A talented cast surrounds him. A particular standout is Maggie Smith as the Duchess of York, who gives her son a great dressing down for all the grief he has caused her and the family his entire life. The Americans, Annette Bening as Queen Elizabeth and Robert Downey Jr. as her brother Earl Rivers, more than hold their own with the British actors.
The costumes are very well done. As Richard grows in power, the outfits worn by he and his allies slowly take on the design of Nazi soldiers. His flag resembles that of the Nazi Party as well. The bright red flag has a white circle in the middle with the swastika replaced by a boar’s head.
The film deserves to be given the high definition treatment, but it looks adequate with some scenes appearing intentionally soft. The dialogue is not always consistent, getting quiet at times.
I strongly recommend this version of Richard III, particularly as a way to introduce people to Shakespeare’s works because the final battle sequence has great action that couldn’t be created on a stage.