Watching Ian McKellen play King Lear a few nights ago reminded me of how much I liked his take on Richard III, released in 1995. It may be heresy, but I much prefer it to the Laurence Olivier adaptation, even if the text has been cut pretty drastically. The setting is still England, but an alternate-history fascist version in the 1930s. So, no, this is not a straight version of the play. If that’s what you want, there are other places to look. With a production like this, you either stamp your foot and complain about gimmicks and cultural vandalism, or you assume you’re watching the work of intelligent artists — McKellen himself co-wrote the screenplay — and pay close attention. This Richard III warrants it.
The prologue, devoid of dialogue, takes the events from the conclusion of Henry VI, Part 3 — the direct predecessor to Richard III — and shows Richard leading the Yorkist assault that destroys the Lancastrians, ends the War of the Roses, and puts King Edward IV, Richard’s brother, on the throne.
I particularly like the way the film sets up the “Now is the winter of our discontent” speech, and McKellen’s delivery. It starts about five minutes in, once the credits are done.
By the way, nothing is wasted in this title sequence. Not only do we get glimpses of all the major characters, but the song — Christopher Marlowe’s contemporaneous poem “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” redone as a swing tune — ironically foreshadows Richard’s later words of seduction to the Lady Anne, whose husband and father he has just killed.
When Richard rises to speak, he is full of praise for Edward:
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums chang’d to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visag’d war hath smooth’d his wrinkled front,
And now, instead of mounting barbed steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries . . .
Here is where Richard’s tone curdles from fawning praise to acid contempt. In traditional stagings of the play, this entire speech has been delivered straight to the audience — we as viewers are made Richard’s co-conspirators right from the start. The film, however, begins as highly stylized realism, with Richard delivering the first lines directly to the triumphant Yorks. How will the film manage the transition?
By jumping to a men’s room, of course. Richard now literally pisses on the good fellowship and merriment taking place around him:
He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I — that am not shap’d for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass —
I-that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph —
I — that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them —
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity.
McKellen does something quite bold here by injecting some famous lines Richard himself delivered in Henry VI, Part 3. It’s in Act 3, scene two:
Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile,
And cry ‘Content’ to that which grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face to all occasions.
And then, Richard catches our eye — the audience’s collective eye — in the men’s room mirror. From this moment on, we become complicit in Richard’s plans. McKellen then returns to the original text:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the King
In deadly hate the one against the other;
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false, and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mew’d up —
About a prophecy which says that G
Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be.
Dive, thoughts, down to my soul. Here Clarence comes.
Now watch the film’s conclusion at the Battle of Bosworth Field, with forces led by Henry, Earl of Richmond, coming to depose Richard. (Fans of The Wire take note that Richmond is played by Jimmy McNulty himself, Dominic West.) Richard’s last words are actually taken from his speech to the troops just before the battle:
Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law!
March on, join bravely, let us to it pell-mell,
If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell.
What a wonderfully cynical ending. Richard cheats Richmond of the chance to kill him. As he topples off the roof, Richmond — who hesitated with Richard in his sights — fires a couple of ineffectual shots and then, like Richard, locks eyes with the audience just as Richard did at the beginning. I guess that tells us everything we need to know about how this new ruler will turn out. And what a sendoff for Richard, eh? Straight to hell, a taunting smile on his face right up to the end. What a cur, what a swine — outstanding!
A few years after Richard III came out, McKellen went from murderer to maia in another big movie role that involved a spectacular, fiery fall:
“Hand in hand to hell” indeed. To paraphrase a rather Shakespearean line from a completely different film, that’s falling with style!