From balrog to Bard

Though it does all kinds of things I ought to dislike — mainly, drastically chopping away at the text — I think the 1995 film version of Richard III starring Ian McKellen is one of the best Shakespeare films I’ve seen.

I admire the sheer nerve of a Shakespeare adaptation (co-written by McKellen) that opens with an extended action sequence devoid of dialogue, and I think McKellen’s version of the hunchbacked villain puts Laurence Olivier’s portrayal in the shade. I also love the way the way Richard’s “Now is the winter of our discontent” soliloquy begins as a speech, then shifts when Richard enters a washroom and notices us in the mirror, after which he directs his conspiratorial asides directly to the camera. This sets up the great moment at the end when Richmond, having vanquished Richard and seized the throne for himself, appears to notice the audience for the first time and directs his own conspiratorial smile at the camera. This last cynical twist tells us everything we need to know about what the next ruler is going to be like. And our last glimpse of Richard as he topples into hell is about the coolest send-off a villain could ask for.

McKellen is currently in the middle of playing King Lear with the Royal Shakespeare Company. BBC has been tracking virtually every step of the production’s journey from page to stage, and I can only hope that this adaptation, like Richard III, leads to a film.

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