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William Shakespeare's classic play is brought into the present with the setting as Great Britian in the 1930s. Civil war has erupted with the House of Lancaster on one side, claiming the right to the British throne and hoping to bring freedom to the country. Opposing is the House of York, commanded by the infamous Richard who rules over a fascist government and hopes to install himself as a dictator monarch. Written by
Anthony Hughes <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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When it comes to updates of the plays by William Shakespeare, Richard III is probably the best of the lot. While it might seem like an unusual concept to take the classic play of deceit, betrayal, seduction, and cold-blooded murder out of the 1400's and into an alternate history 1930's version of England, the cast and production designs make that concept seem not only believable but so realistic you might find yourself wondering if this could really have happened if events had played out like they do in the film.
Ian McKellen plays the title role, the youngest brother of the royal family of the York's, who is determined to take the throne at whatever cost. McKellen's performance is chilling to say the least. From the moment he is introduced in a classic introduction to the battle sequence at the end of the film, McKellen makes the character of Richard seem to be the most evil villain ever to grace a movie screen as he is able to literally become the character in the vast web of deception via acting like he has no interest in taking the throne. One can't help but believe that Richard could really pull of the deceptions that he's able to pull off convincing people not only the public but members of the royal family and nobility. The character's various monologue's in which his thoughts are spoken aloud, giving the audience a glimpse into the tyrannical mind of this would be king / dictator are a highlight of the film especially at the film's beginning in which if one had any doubts about how evil Richard is are very quickly dismissed. McKellen sells Richard and he grips your attention to where your focus is entirely on him, making the trailer line about Richard being the "greatest villain of all time" ring very true and it's a shame that McKellen didn't even get an Oscar nomination for his performance.
Annette Benning plays Queen Elizabeth, the American wife of Richard's brother Edward. Many have complained about Benning in the role for various reasons including the fact that she is American and some question her acting ability. Benning, in my opinion, succeeds in making the idea of an American queen seem realistic and her acting talent matches up against McKellen in every scene the two are in together. Also keep in mind this is an alternate history, so an American queen of England isn't that unfeasible. Robert Downey Jr. plays her brother, Rivers. Rivers disappears about midway trough the film, but for the first half of the film, he is Richard's biggest enemy and his obvious dislike of Richard is evident in Downey's performance and the scene where his character meets his demise is shocking to say the least. Jim Broadbent plays the role of Buckingham, Richard's biggest supporter, with unnerving calm and his conniving attitude makes him almost as big of a villain as Richard. Kristin Scott Thomas is superb as Anne, the widow of one of Richard's victims who eventually falls for Richard and lives long enough to regret it. Her confrontation against Richard in a morgue towards the film's beginning stands out as one of the film's best scenes. Nigel Hawthorne's all too brief appearance as the plain and simple Clarence stands out as well, as does Maggie Smith's Duchess of York and John Wood's King Edward.
The concept of being updated to the 1930's is no more evident then in the production design. There is no doubt that we are in the 1930's and the filmmakers appear to have gone to great steps to make it evident that this is very much an alternate history. As I am sure others have commented this England is not the England we all know and love. Instead, one constantly gets the feeling that we are instead in a Nazi version of England. Everywhere in the film, in the costumes especially, the aura of Nazi Germany can be felt. Virtually all of Richard's costumes are based off German uniforms of the Nazi era, as are the uniforms worn by his supporters in the film's final half. If anyone doubts the influence of Nazi Germany on this alternate history version of England, look at the rally scene shortly before Richard is crowned. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to realize that this scene is a case of déjà vu: it is almost identical to the well known documentary footage we have all seen of Nazi rallies right down to the flags that, while containing a boar instead of the swastika, still makes one think that they're in Nazi Germany.
The film's opening sequence with the classic sight of a tank crashing trough a wall and the film's final battle sequence also add to the feeling of this being in the 1930's. And to everyone out there who has commented about the red stars on some of the tanks here's why: if you knew about the war of the roses you would know that red was the color of the rose symbolizing the Lancaster family and that the white rose, seen on many of Richard's troops in the finale, was the rose representing the York family.
Also, Trevor Jones score is a must hear. The beautiful song at the beginning of the film sells the idea of the 1930's very well. The score, while at times going out of the 1930's, does the job of keeping the feeling of tension throughout the film and is another example of the talent of Trevor Jones.
Few films have the power to hold the attention of a viewer from beginning to end, especially when there is a large amount of dialog. But with the performance given by Ian McKellen, production design, battle sequences, and the score by Trevor Jones, Richard III easily counts not only as a must see but as a modern classic.
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