No. 4, March 2000
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Copyright 2000  www.cosmopolis.ch  Louis Gerber  All rights reserved.

Richard III 1995
Based on the play by William Shakespeare
Director: Richard Loncraine
Richard III: Ian McKellen
Queen Elizabeth: Annette Bening
King Edward: John Wood
Buckingham: Jim Broadbent
Rivers: Robert Downey Jr.
Clarence: Nigel Hawthorne
Hastings: Jim Carter
Lady Anne: Kristin Scott Thomas
Duchess of York: Maggie Smith
Prince Edward: Christopher Bowen
Ratcliffe: Bill Paterson
Photo Copyright: Greg Gorman
Richard III
 
Richard Loncraine and Ian McKellen have adapted Shakespeare's Richard III for the big screen and put the characters and action into an imaginary fascist Europe and England of the 1930s. The Swing music and the art deco style of the settings belong to the period. Civil War divides the nation. The King is under attack from the rebel York family, who are fighting to place their eldest son, Edward, on the throne. Edward's army advances, led by his youngest brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester. The film starts with a scene in which a telex is announcing that Richard is marching towards the adversary's headquarters. A tank crashes into a room. Soldiers storm in. Richard kills King Henry (Edward Jewesbury) and his heir apparent. In contrast, the next scene shows the peaceful life in a palace. The York family celebrates its victory, Edward is King. But this idyllic situation won't last for long. The ambitious Richard, deformed from birth, wants to rule himself. Therefore, a lot of people (from his own family) have to die. To the end of the drama, Richard III fights for his life and almost whispers the famous line: "A horse, a horse, a kingdom for a horse". As he dies, happy Swing music starts (I'm Sitting On Top of the World).
 
Looking directly into the eye of the camera, Ian McKellen (Richard III) confides his machinations to the audience, making them Richard's confidants and drawing them directly into the drama."Richard, the consummate liar, always speaks the truth to the audience, but only to them," McKellen emphasizes. "That is meant to be disarming for an audience, because they alone are privy to what he intends to do, and they become accomplices [in] his schemes." Mc Kellen is sensational in his role as Richard. The majority of actors are convincing, for instance Jim Broadbent as Buckingham, Jim Carter as Prime Minister Lord Hastings, Nigel Hawthorne as Clarene and Maggie Smith as the Duchess of York, Richard's mother.
 
As always, there is the author's original play, and there is the adaptation to the big screen. The film is a work of art by itself and therefore should not always and in every detail be compared to the underlying play. Still, what is disturbing is the fact that the dialogues in the film are severely cut and therefore Shakespeare's sense for the development of the story sometimes gets lost. The film rushes more or less from one murder to another. But of course, some of them are perfectly staged, for instance the murder of Rivers (Robert Downey, Jr.) in the midst of a sex scene comes completely unexpectedly.
 
Annette Bening as Queen Elizabeth and Robert Downey, Jr. as her brother, Rivers, are distinctly and intentionally portrayed as Americans. McKellen explained that he wanted "Queen Elizabeth and her brother to be played as Americans for several reasons. In the original story, they are strangers to the social camp of the King and Richard. A modern equivalent for the 1930s setting seemed to me in contrasting the British royals with a couple of Americans whose manners and voices are different, and of whom the Brits would be suspicious." McKellen added that "Far too often American actors copy an English accent in order to do Shakespeare. That really is such a pity because Shakespeare's own accent was probably closer to a North American one than to a modern English accent." Despite these explanations, Annette Bening is not convincing in her role as Queen Elizabeth. It seemed as if she was not able to handle Shakespeare's words in a natural way - like the British actors did.
 
Actor Ian McKellen played Richard III on a world tour with the Royal National Theatre. He wanted to "make a Shakespeare film that could be accessible to as wide an audience as possible, and it seems we have achieved that with this film." McKellen is right: at times Richard III is almost like an action movie. A John Woo film - with great dialogues added. Despite the mentioned failures and liberties taken, Richard III is a great and at times shocking drama, cinema at its best, with colours, costumes, decor, music, action and actors wisely put together.

 
Biography of Ian McKellen
 
Ian Murray McKellen was born in 1939 in Burnley, the northern English mill-town where his father Denis Murray was a civil engineer. An early fascination with theatre was encouraged by his parents, who took him on a family outing to "Peter Pan" at Manchester Opera House when he was 3. At all his schools he acted, most crucially for Frank Greene, the senior English master at Bolton School. Bolton School, where McKellen was a student, further encouraged the tyro actor at the Hopefield Miniature Theatre. This converted Edwardian house had an auditorium for 50 adoring parents and a tiny stage for puppetry, one-act entertainments in French or translated from the Greek or written especially by the teachers. In one of these latter, McKellen made the first of very few appearances in drag, as a Bolton mill-girl who cheats her way to the finale of a beauty contest ("The Beauty Contest " by Leonard Roe.) His first Shakespeare performance was at Hopefield, as a 13 year old Malvolio in the letter scene from "Twelfth Night."
 
Each summer, he attended the school's camp to Stratford-upon-Avon. In the evening, he saw Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Charles Laughton and John Gielgud in Shakespeare plays. He won an exhibition to read English at St. Catherine's College. This honour was withdrawn after two years. By then, he had acted in 21 undergraduate productions. He began to be noted by the national press. When he graduated a Bachelor of Arts in 1961, he had decided to become an actor ("I  wasn't fit for anything else!") and without going to drama school made his first performance as Roper in the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry's production of "A Man for All Seasons". Besides his career as a theatre actor, Ian McKellan has appeared in more than 20 films since 1966. He is gay, a vegetarian and a supporter of New Labour.

Ian McKellen. photo copyright: McKellen.

Biography of William Shakespeare
 
Park Honan, Emeritus Professor at the School of English, University of Leeds, has written a widely acclaimed biography of William Shakespeare (Shakespeare: A Life. OUP, 1999). He has written an "up-to-date report on the available facts" for the general public, and added "new and relevant material." He tried to separate facts from myths and errors. Honan sheds new light on Shakespeare's youth. He has also profited from recent research on local records and documents. Where Honan has no evidence on Shakespeare's life, he does not try to imagine how it could have been, but describes other children, men and families with similar background of his time. Regarding Shakespeare's death, Honan comes to the conclusion that he died from typhoid fever. The biography is rich in detail and written with literary skill, but always remains easily readable.
Richard III (1995) by Richard Loncraine. Starring Ian McKellen, Annette Bening, et al. Get it on DVD from Amazon.com or VHS from Amazon.com. Park Honan: Shakespeare: A Life. Hardcover, OUP, 1999, 479 p. Get the biography from Amazon.com.
 
See also: William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, Stanley Wells (ed.), et al., Oxford, 1986.

No. 4, March 2000
current edition & archives
Art  Film  Music  History  Politics  Archives
Links  For Advertisers  Feedback  German edition  Travel

Copyright 2000  www.cosmopolis.ch  Louis Gerber  All rights reserved.