Shakespeare given the fact his work was conceived for the stage is always difficult to adapt for the big screen. Often the best adaptations of Shakespeare on the big screen often get rid of his dialogue like Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood or Ran with the basic story and themes intact. One of the most daring and most successful adaptations of his work is Ian McKellen and Richard Loncraine’s adaptation of Richard III in 1995.
McKellen made his name doing Shakespeare from the ’60s to the present day. One of his most celebrate Shakespeare performances was a worldwide tour of Richard III which the 1995 film version is based upon. Instead of setting it in 14th century they transfered it to a fictional fascist Britain in the 1930s. It’s an inspired idea for a story about a megalomaniac who murders his way to the top.
Richard III is also one of the most digestible of the Bard’s plays due to its modern themes of war, power, manipulation for a modern audience. McKellen who of course is a seasoned professional had this to say about his adaptation “When you put this amazing old story in a believable modern setting, it will hopefully raise the hair on the back of your neck, and you won’t be able to dismiss it as ‘just a movie’ or, indeed, as ‘just old-fashioned Shakespeare’.”. This adaptation would pave the way for a whole host of cinematic Shakespeare adaptations in a more modern setting such as Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet and Julie Taymore’s mixture of the ancient and modern in Titus.
Loncraine before he signed on to direct Richard III had little knowledge of Shakespeare and despised studying him in school (like pretty much everyone) so he came to it without directing it on stage or watching many productions of it etc.. By his ignorance of Shakespeare he was able to make one of the few adaptations which really exceeds as a motion picture instead of a filmed play. In an interesting side note Alex Cox at one point was attached to director.
McKellen of course had done the stage version so he could have slept walk through the film and he would still be stunning. He perfectly captures the hunchbacked depravity of Richard III. As with any Shakespeare adaptation especially one made in the British isles you get a whole host of the great thespians on offer so Jim Broadbent, Maggie Smith, Kirsten Scott Thomas and Nigel Hawthorne are featured. Some Yanks are also involved such as Annette Benning as Queen Elizabeth and arguably the only weak link is Robert Downey, Jr. as Rivers.
The production expertly used pre-existing iconic locations in London with a relatively small budget but redesigned many of them so they created something unique. The climatic battle sequence is transported brilliantly to the always visually interesting Battersea Power Station which of course was used for that Pink Floyd cover but also Nineteen Eighty-Four, Children of Men and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus to name just a few. The costumes and iconography also expertly bled both fascist imagery with allies imagery not unlike what the band Laibach has done in their stage presentation.
Richard III remains arguably the finest Shakepeare adaptation since Kurosawa’s. By eliminating about half of the original text and modernizing it actually gets to heart of Shakespeare’s play than most “straight” adaptations do. McKellen gives quite possibly his best on-screen performance and by all accounts he lost out on an oscar nominated by only 2 votes, which is a crying shame.
The film was released on DVD back in 2000 and had since fallen out of print. Thanks to BFI and Park Circus we now have a definitive Blu-Ray release. Firstly a newly recorded commentary by Ian McKellen and Richard Loncraine is included. Newly filmed featurettes includes a short but insightful making of, a lengthy talk by McKellen who talks about Shakespeare on stage and film throughout the ages and a on-stage in conversation by McKellen and Loncraine. Finally the trailer and a booklet is included which includes an essay by McKellen.