Thursday, February 11, 2016

Richard III (1995)

Richard III DVD Ian McKellen 1995

2 Nominations, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Art Direction, Set Decoration - Tony Burrough
Nomination: Best Costume Design - Shuna Harwood

There's nothing rare about a William Shakespeare play adapted into another time period on film, whether in original Shakespearean English (as in Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet or Kenneth Branagh's Love's Labour's Lost) or in a looser sense (as in 10 Things I Hate About You or Kiss Me Kate).  What is rare, however, is for an adaptation to to be done with as much intelligence, style, and verve as Richard III.

Directed by Richard Loncraine from a screenplay he co-authored with the film's star Ian McKellen, Richard III is made by people with both a sincere understanding and a deep affinity for the Bard's work.  The production finds the perfect balance of maintaining faithfulness to the original text while introducing a modern and compelling reimagination.  Richard III is as faithful to the original as is possible without being too dependent on what has come before.  Richard III is alive in the present without killing its own past.

Ian McKellen is magnificent in his portrayal as King Richard as only a performer of his caliber who has spent his life interpreting the works of Shakespeare can be.  There is no struggle to wrench meaning out of each word nor to prove he is up to the task of taking on the role.  McKellen had portrayed Richard on stage in 1990 and 1992 just a few years prior, and his experience and deep familiarity with the role allow him to practically exude glee as he tears through the film.  This could have easily been an Academy Award winning performance, and it is only because the class of Best Actor nominees at the Oscars was one of the stronger groupings of the 1990s that prevents his omission from even a nomination from being a complete travesty.

Annette Bening is adequate in the role of Queen Elizabeth, widow to Richard's brother Edward IV, while Robert Downey, Jr. and Kristin Scott Thomas are both solid but ordinary in portraying Lord Rivers and Lady Anne, respectively.  The rest of the supporting cast is terrific, representing some of the best British characters actors of the 90s: Jim Broadbent, Maggie Smith, Nigel Hawthorne, John Wood, Jim Carter, and many others.  It comes as no surprise that, with the exceptions of the late Nigel Hawthorne and John Wood, each continues to astound as among the best of their generations.

There was no way for the Academy to ignore the costume design of Shuna Harwood or the set decoration of Tony Burrough, and both received well-deserved nominations for their creativity in portraying 1930s Britain through an imagined fascist lens.  Both were bested by Michael Hoffman's Restoration, proving the truism that there's nothing the Academy likes better than recognizing the visuals behind a British period piece.

When it comes to adapting a work of William Shakespeare to the modern (or nearly modern) day, Richard Loncraine's Richard III is the model for all others to follow.

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