1995, R, 108 min. Directed by Richard Loncraine. Starring Ian Mckellen, Annette Bening, Jim Broadbent, Robert Downey, Nigel Hawthorne, Kristen Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith, John Wood.
REVIEWED By Robert Faires, Fri., Feb. 23, 1996
He is the most audacious villain on the planet. He kills the King of England. He kills the heir to the throne, then woos his widow while they stand over the prince's corpse. He weds her, then kills her when a more politically expedient marriage partner surfaces. He murders a prime minister, the queen's brother, his own brother, and the boy princes he's sworn to protect. He is Richard, and no act is so heinous that he won't attempt it to gain power. Four centuries after he first limped onto a stage, Shakespeare's Richard III is still a compelling figure, a fiend almost too vile for words yet one who fascinates us. But then, we've always been spellbound by devils, especially ones with style, and Richard has that in spades. He kills with cunning, with an unerring sense of an enemy's weakness, the flaw in the diamond. And he's a master performer, who can twist words to seduce and appear guileless even as he plots murder. In the film, Ian McKellen animates this evil figure with a fearful grace. He's ablaze with hate and icily ruthless, yet his honeyed words charm. McKellen's command of the text is stunning -- every idea makes such sense -- but he doesn't revel in his own skill, like Olivier; he suits word to action, action to word, to help us know Richard. Wriggling into a black glove with one hand, he suggests both Richard's mastery of his infirmity and a huge spider writhing in joy. What makes the film more than a star turn for McKellen is that he and director Loncraine (The Wedding Gift), who co-wrote the screenplay, create a setting that matches Richard for vision and style. Theirs is a world in and out of time, an England of the 1930s but one beset by civil war, where Richard's seizure of the crown seeds blackshirted tyranny in British soil. The film's look, opulent with Deco, is stunning, but is never an end in itself. Image is wed to text, so the scenes seem to rise sensibly from Shakespeare's words. The cast, a who's who of British stars, is terrific, filling the drama with urgency. But driving it is Richard, is McKellen's towering performance, which seems embodied in his face, the left half sloping down, like a cliff sliding into the sea or like it's being pulled slowly -- fatefully -- to hell. Hell does claim Richard in the fiery finale, in a moment both horrifying and witty. It tips its crown to, of all things, James Cagney's flaming farewell in White Heat, which may seem odd, but for years Richard's story has been lifted for crime pictures. What is it, if not the tale of a shrewd criminal clawing his way to power, only to meet a bloody end? You know his heirs; now, meet the granddaddy of vicious wiseguys. They don't come better. Or worse.