That Shakespeare fellow is all the rage at the cineplex these days. But as more filmmakers translate the Bard's plays to the screen, the adaptions stray further and further from their source. Kenneth Branagh broke into the movie biz with his faithful version of Henry V in 1989, but his Much Ado About Nothing in 1993 could best be described as a loose interpretation of the Shakespearean play. And Branagh currently plays Iago in a sexed-up screen treatment of Othello that excises nearly two-thirds of Shakespeare's dialogue, reorders some scenes, and plays up the erotic potential of the Moorish general's romance with Desdemona. Now is the winter of our discontent made stranger still by the arrival of a celluloid Richard III, set in some bizarre facsimile of England in the Thirties -- as in 1930 -- that portrays Richard as a Hitleresque tyrant complete with pencil-thin moustache and jackboots.
Richard III stands as one of the greatest villains in all of English literature, a crippled, power-hungry Machiavellian megalomaniac whose physical deformity fuels the scarred psyche that plots his evil deeds. Drawing parallels to Hitler may make it easier for some audience members to appreciate the breadth and depth of Richard's treachery, but it also feels like a patronizing attempt to dumb down the original; it's as if the filmmakers don't trust viewers to figure out for themselves how nefarious Richard is. Put simply, the Third Reich tie-ins don't work; in fact they're irritating -- obvious and unnecessary. And it makes you wonder what to expect next. Hamlet as a rock star (the Artist Formerly Known as the Prince of Denmark)? Jimmy Johnson as Macbeth?
Nor does it help matters any that this latest Shakespearean production featuring some of Britain's finest actors felt the need to cast Yanks -- in this case Annette Bening as Queen Elizabeth and Robert Downey, Jr.(!) as Earl Rivers -- in an effort to juice up U.S. and international box-office receipts. Bening isn't half bad, but neither is she so good that the quality of her performance justifies casting an American in the part. Downey is another story altogether, however. Talk about a fish out of water; Downey is not quite as horrible as Keanu Reeves is in Much Ado About Nothing, but from the moment we catch our first glimpse of the smirking actor sporting a goofy feather Indian headdress, he sticks out like a California frat boy in the House of Lords. Perhaps Shakespeare anticipated the casting of lightweights such as Downey and Reeves when he wrote, "The world is grown so bad, that wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch."
Mercifully, far more Brit eagles than American wrens perch in this production. Ian McKellen makes a marvelously malevolent Richard, committing one dastardly deed after another with scarcely contained glee. Also impressive: Jim Broadbent as Richard's coconspirator Buckingham, Nigel Hawthorne as Richard's tragically manipulated brother Clarence, and Maggie Smith as Richard's long-suffering mother the Duchess of York.
But this Richard III is McKellen's show, for more reasons than just his thespianship. Long recognized as England's foremost Shakespearean actor, McKellen wasn't content merely to reprise his award-winning stage performance in the title role. He also coproduced the film and cowrote the screenplay. He should have stuck to acting. As Richard III, one of the wiliest, most ruthless and cunning hellhounds of all time, McKellen reigns supreme. As a behind-the-scenes filmmaker with a hand in both the decisions to change the setting to the Twentieth Century and to cast Robert Downey, Jr., McKellen deserves a fate not unlike the one finally met by Richard and his henchmen.
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Written by Ian McKellen and Richard Loncraine; directed by Richard Loncraine; with Ian McKellen, Jim Broadbent, Annette Bening, Maggie Smith, Adrian Dunbar, Nigel Hawthorne, and Robert Downey, Jr.