Kim stacks the deck with Richard III
By Kimberley Jones,
11:02PM, Mon. Aug. 18, 2008
Alright, I admit it: I threw down the gauntlet to you – to defend classical adaptations – all stealthy-like while we were in mid-watch of Richard III. Not the Olivier version, mind you – I dozed through most of that one, with the occasional rouse to snicker at his beaky schnozz and bright blue Prince Valiant cut – but the 1995 Richard Loncraine version starring Ian McKellen (who also adapted the text to the screen).
It was a rotten trick of me, I know, to charge you to defend the old guard whilst parading around the bright shiny new one… but it worked, didn’t it? It’s a terrific adaptation – smart and sneaky and spry as hell. Shakespeare’s play of a conniving would-be monarch is still a bloodbath (and some of the deaths are downright shocking), but McKellen’s Duke of Gloucester is such a frisky, artful bastard, you can’t help but feel endeared to him.
The setting is transposed to 30’s England, and not arbitrarily but to real effect: Just watch as Richard circles nearer the crown – the costumes, already militaristic, grow increasingly fascist-inspired. The sitting-duck Queen (Annette Bening) and her brother (Robert Downey Jr.) are ladder-climbing American upstarts; the wretched Queen Anne (Kristin Scott Thomas) is now in a druggie slide toward covert heroin injection; and after Dame Maggie Smith delivers her withering “I curse you” speech to son Richard, he quivers just a moment to reveal a lifetime of hurt of the “mommy never loved me enough” variety.
In short, a thumping reinvention, yet utterly Shakespeare-sacrosanct.
And how great is that final shot – Richard III backwards-diving to death with a song in his heart (Al Jolson’s “I’m Sitting on the Top of the World”) and a big fuck-all grin to the world that would overthrow him? (Sort of a scrambling of Slim Pickens straddling doom and the smirking, end-film syrup sounds of deep-voiced Vera Lynn.)
One more note, before I cede the floor to you. In this back and forth about the virtues of old versus new, I’ll say this: Yes, I’m thrilled by the possibilities of applying new meaning, new metaphor, to the our pal Will’s old words. Yes, I think Loncraine’s and Luhrmann’s bold reimaginings are brilliant for the way they speak to modern man’s similar (if not even more extreme) bloodlust, and just plain old lust.
But honestly, I’ll take the new over the old just for costuming alone. Who wants spangly tights or the Dane’s glorified potato sack when you can have angel wings and a slinky Thirties evening gown? Huh. Just like you argued in our last Film Fight: It really comes down to tights, doesn't it?
And with that, I bid you… Oh, whatever.