Watching Richard Loncraine's version of Richard III (1995) with Ian McKellen (who co-wrote the adaptation with Loncraine) in the title role, I was amazed to realize just how pulpy the original William Shakespeare play is. Not only do we get murder, assassination, incest, political backstabbing, social climbers, corruption, greed, and shame, we get possibly the most single-minded, unrepentant, despicable villain ever. When you think about it, it's a soap opera of respectable literary orgins, and my god is it gloriously entertaining.
While the language and plot remain Shakespeare, the setting has been relocated to 1930s England with the royal York family emerging victorious in the War of the Roses over the Lancaster house. Richard of Gloucester (McKellen), brother of the newly-crowned King Edward, is a bitter, deformed, calculating duke with aspirations on the crown. With Machiavellian ruthlessness, he eliminates all obstacles, including his brothers and nephews, through an elaborate plan of murder, marriage, and manipulation. But his ambition spurs the hatred of everyone around him.
Keep your eyes peeled for many familiar faces. Not only is there McKellen in a truly diabolical yet charismatic turn as Richard, there's Jim Broadbent as his cohort Buckingham, Annette Bening as Queen Elizabeth, Robert Downey Jr. as her brother Rivers, Nigel Hawthorne as Richard's brother Clarence, Maggie Smith as the Duchess of York, and Kristen Scott Thomas as Richard's wife Anne. As you can imagine, the cast is quite good, although McKellen is certainly the standout.
The genius of the play and movie is how it lets us in on Richard's scheme. We are privy to his thoughts and asides, and we know just how much he relishes being evil and murderous. Somehow, we almost end up rooting for him because he's got a goal, knows what he wants, will do what it takes to achieve, and by sharing his plans with us, essentially makes us complicit to his actions. On the surface, he's a charming, smooth-tongued if ugly younger brother of a respected king, but underneath, he's a loathsome, hateful creature. Because he's honest with us, we can't help but admire or at least respect him.
Two scenes illustrate my earlier point about the inherent tackiness of the material. The famous opening monologue - "Now is the winter of our discontent" - begins in an ornate dance hall with splendid costumes, joyful music, and a royal crowd: a really classy affair. Richard begins his speech addressing this audience, but then the scene cuts to him finishing his address at a bathroom urinal. Not only does it reinforce his contempt, it's funny.
But if you really want bad taste, watch how Richard proposes to Anne. In the War of the Roses, we see Richard kill the previous king and his son, Anne's husband. As she grieves over his corpse in the morgue, Richard appears to flatter her and tell her that her beauty drove him to kill her husband. With her husband's body right there on a slab, Richard gets Anne to agree to marry him. It's like, my God, how tacky, but I must say it might be the greatest pickup ever.
The World War II setting sounds like gimmick at first, but it reinforces the manner in which Richard climbs and later falls from power. The costuming and background certainly brings to mind the rise of fascism and Nazi Germany, and Richard is in many ways a power-mad tyrant in the mold of Hitler, shaping popular opinion through behind-the-scenes calculation and violence only to lead his country to ruin. The royal and period period piece settings - grand halls, mansions, dances, dining halls - contrast with the scummier locations - prisons, morgues, dilapidated factories. Just as Richard can mask a vile personality, so too can a country shield a dark underbelly.
Richard III is an unorthodox and daring adaptation of the Bard's play, and it revels in the grotesque excesses only hinted at in the original text and other productions. It's not a word-for-word translation from page to screen, but in its own warped way, it works.