"Othello" on a High School basketball court. "Macbeth" in a fast food burger chain. "Love's Labor Lost" as a 1930's Hollywood Musical. Updating the Bard has become a popular pastime for screenwriters. Although purists like to put down such endeavors, they are truly missing out on some great work. After all, it's the stories as much as the language that make Shakespeare's plays memorable, and new interpretations only keep these stories alive for new audiences. Recently, we've had some commendable attempts at updating his plays for the times, with one in particular that I consider a modern classic.
In director Richard Loncraine's "Richard III", the story of the disfigured and vengeful royal is transported from the 15th century to an alternate reality circa 1930's England. In this version of history, a civil war has just ended with Richard's brother Edward crowned as King of England. Richard, however, has other plans for his family, his friends, his enemies and any other living soul that gets between him and the throne. Soon, we see the rise of Richard and his supporters that mirrors a similar regime in Germany at about the same time.
This particular interpretation of the play was first created by McKellen for the stage, where it was a success. When the opportunity arose to make a film version, he was given the chance to reprise his role as Richard. This would become his first staring role in a major movie production long before American audiences knew him as Gandalf the Grey. The charisma and intelligence he would later bring to his "Lord of the Rings" role is in evidence here. And as he would later prove when playing Magneto in the "X-Men" films, McKellen gives such life and passion into his villains that we are on the edge of our seat in anticipation of what he will do next.
Of course, placing the villain as the main character and asking the audience to connect with him is a dicey proposition. As is intended by Shakespeare in his scene between Richard and Lady Anne, we are meant to dredge up some sympathy for this poor miserable cripple, despite his heinous acts. The creators of this film decided to do Shakespeare one better by having Richard directly address the audience and bid us to follow him. We become complicit in his crimes and share in his elation when he finally attains a fleeting happiness. Right down to the memorable last frame of the film (and the perfectly chosen song that accompanies it), we are right next to Richard and are glad to be along for the ride.
The rest of the cast is a crowd of familiar faces including Kristin Scott Thomas, Nigel Hawthorne, Jim Broadbent and Maggie Smith. Two Americans, Robert Downey Jr. and Annette Bening, play two characters that have been scripted as American interlopers into the royal family. Since both actors were new to Shakespeare, a lot of critics pointed to their roles as miscasting. I think this is unfair, as there are British actors in the cast as well who are new to the Bard and do not receive similar criticism. Bening and Downey do just fine in their roles, and none of the cast deter the production.
Set design and costuming are superlative, with locations chosen to perfectly evoke the period of the film. Cinematography captures incredibly vivid colors with lots of reds and blacks (the colors of Richard's crest) filling the frames in both exciting battle scenes and also the quieter moments. Though some modern Shakespeare films choose to ditch the language entirely, this film manages to retain the basic language while still paring down from the original play. Any resulting anachronisms of the original text are slyly dealt with. The film even comes up with an ingenious way of including the "A horse, a horse" line without it sounding out of place.
It is a common misconception that Shakespeare is not for the masses when the opposite is true. The intriguing characters, dialogue and plotting are all there waiting to be seen by anyone new to his plays. If that means that modern Hamlets will deliver their soliloquies in video store aisles, then so be it. The more attempts that are made, the more likely a superior film will come to light. Then maybe, maybe we'll get to see a work that matches McKellen's brilliance.
Ten out of Ten