Thursday, April 7, 2011

Cool Flicks: Ian McKellen's RICHARD III

I suppose to be absolutely correct I should refer to this as Richard Loncraine's Richard III but it seems so very much McKellen's baby -- it's perhaps the mark of a true actor to manifest a desire to pretend to be Richard III or Shylock or MacBeth at some point, no? -- that I can't help but call it such. McKellen shares screenplay credit with Loncraine and, of course, William Shakespeare, and he is also an executive producer. And he has much of which to be proud in this big, noisy adaptation of one of Shakespeare's nastier plays.

I do not say noisy idly. From the roars of the MGM Lion -- rumbling and dog-startling over my Harman Kardon Soundsticks III -- to the swinging soundtrack music, full of deep, heavy bass plunks and fruity vocals, to the climactic Battle of Bosworth Fields (about which more anon) (also highly dog-startling) this is a film to match aurally the bombastic dreams of a would-be tyrant. Zounds!

Directors love to do up Shakespeare's plays in alternate settings, don't they? They're occasionally happy to let the actors wear pseudo-Elizabethan garb but more often they want other costumes, other eras (sometimes, as in projects like 10 Things I Hate About You, even other dialogue). For this Richard III Loncraine and McKellen have imagined a sort of alternate Edwardian England for this tale of the last Plantagenet (Edwardian as in Edward VII, in the early 20th century; not as in Edward IV, Richard III's brother, who reigned in the mid 15th. I found the superimposition of the Yorkist's reign over that of the first Windsor an odd one, but as it gave an excuse for lots of lovely cars and Art Deco sets and costumes I let it go). Thus the opening scenes, in which Richard murders Edward of Lancaster and his father, King Henry VI can feature an opulent Art Deco study and library being destroyed by a great big tank smashing through its outer wall, from which Richard emerges with a machine gun, blowing Edward to bits and then firing out the movie's title letter-by-letter. One thinks of Pulp Fiction. Richard III was a Bad Motherfucker.

All in all, I was amazed at how well this really quite brutal story translated to these ravishingly elegant settings. I suppose the casting here helped quite a lot: Dame Maggie Smith as the Duchess of York, Richard's mother; Jim Broadbent as the Duke of Buckingham; Jim Carter as Lord Hastings; Nigel Hawthorne as the Duke of Clarence... and some amusing casting choices as well, like Tim McInnery, whom I first came to know as the silly Lord Percy in Blackadder (the first series of which took this self-same play as its springboard into hilarity), as Catesby and Robert Downey Jr. as Lord Rivers and Annette Bening as Queen Elizabeth, chosen perhaps for the talent for histrionics she displayed so well in American Beauty, much-needed to play a woman who not only loses her husband but also her two sons, the latter to a fabled murder plot in the Tower of London, in the course of the play. I give Bening points for not even trying to fake an English accent.

What really sells it all, of course, is McKellen himself, from his very first lines, morphed for this film into a light after-dinner speech at his brother's posh coronation ball. He gets up before a gorgeous Unidyne microphone to observe "Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this son of York" to light applause and polite, inappropriately timed laughter from a crowd that really isn't listening, eager to get on with its gaiety; the latter part of this famous speech he does not impose on that audience, but shares with us as he leaves the stage and retreats to his private apartments, there to confront himself in the mirror and reveal "I am determined to prove a villain." It's all right there in that opening speech, as Richard III should be, whether in doublet and hose or white tie and tails.

This film teems with brilliant re-imaginings like that; later in the play, after Richard has himself been crowned, he gloats over a black and white newsreel of the event as he tries to tempt Buckingham to murder the Princes in the Tower -- and plans to do away with his no-longer-useful wife, Anne (Kirsten Scott-Thomas, who does Anne as a numbed drug-addict, shooting up hourly just to be able to tolerate her life with Richard). The backdrop of Richard's finest moment playing out in grainy black and white even as he plans his foulest deeds yet works deliciously well.

Then there's the Battle of Bosworth Fields. Oh my, they sure gave us a lot of battle. Henry Tudor (played here by Dominic "The Wire" West with his native accent but an entirely wooden demeanor) has barely made appearance in the film (and he's not much more present in the play) and suddenly he shows up, come from France with a full modern army complete with bombers and tanks. I found this a stretch; a pretender to a throne in the late middle ages might plausibly raise a good number of knights and peasants to fight in his cause, and these all supplied their own horses, weapons and armor, but that one might somehow be able to raise planes and pilots and tanks and tank drivers strained my credulity to its utmost. I realize it was probably the only way to be consistent with the rest of the society invented for the film, but it didn't quite work for me -- though of course I loved this film's version of Richard's death as he plunged backwards, grinning manically at the camera, into a fireball below, almost exactly prefiguring Gollum's in the last Lord of the Rings film (in which, of course, McKellen played Gandalf, to much acclaim).

So once again, I must tip my hat to Juan and Lee at Movies You May Have Missed for bringing my attention to this splendid film I would, indeed, have missed -- for I tend to prefer my Shakespeare films more traditionally rendered, with my favorite example being Kenneth Branagh's Henry V. I think I can hear Lee's teeth grinding from here...

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