Take your pallid third-generation James Bond movies and your stupid Tom Clancy political thrillers, and throw 'em in the trash. For sheer evil, for unrivaled Machiavellian machinations, for straight-ahead cinematic thrills, nothing tops "Richard III." Huh? A Shakespeare adaptation as action movie? A 400-year-old play as a masterpiece of tight screenwriting?
That's right, chums. Based on the Royal National Theatre's production, which starred Sir Ian McKellen and transposed the action to the 1930s, "Richard III" is a swirling, bitterly funny and vastly entertaining study of power, ego, politics and the military that's as up to the minute as Colin Powell. The story, for those of you who went to public schools and can't remember, tracks Richard's ruthless plot to eliminate his brother King Edward, and every other obstacle to the throne--imagined or real.
McKellen's performance is utterly brilliant in its seductiveness, mixing sly direct addresses to the camera with more conventional scenes to build empathy for the nasty brute. This bravura visual audaciousness is what makes the film so much fun. Here's an example of the filmmakers' sardonic, highly cinematic approach, in scenes meant to underscore Richard's strength and Edward's vulnerability. The sick, fragile king is thrown into a near-fatal coughing fit by merely blowing on a document to cool the royal sealing wax. Jump cut to Richard receiving the letter, submerged in a cloud of cigarette smoke and completely unbothered.
I hope you're getting the picture that "Richard III" is a movie, not a filmed play. Of course, devotees of Shakespeare's marvelous language will hardly be disappointed; McKellen is only the greatest classical actor of our time and he's supported by the likes of Nigel Hawthorne (an Oscar nominee for "The Madness of King George") and the astonishing Jim Broadbent, who's best known on this side of the Atlantic for Mike Leigh's comedies. Maggie Smith is simply astonishing as Richard's ferocious, venomous mother, who's the only living being whose enmity he can't bear. Annette Bening holds her ground decently well in this company, as Queen Elizabeth, and Robert Downey Jr., as the queen's playboy brother, chips in a deliciously flippant and decadent performance. For a heady blend of thrills and smarts, no other movie currently playing tops "Richard III."
Copyright 1996 Michael Fox
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