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During the First World War, two French soldiers are captured and imprisoned in a German POW camp. Several escape attempts follow until they are sent to a seemingly impenetrable fortress which seems impossible to escape from.
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
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There are two definitive film productions of Richard III: - Sir Laurence Olivier's 1955 film version, which he directed and in which he plays the title role, supported by Sir Cedric Hardwicke as King Edward, Sir John Gielgud as Clarence, the delectable Claire Bloom as the Lady Anne and a host of other brilliant performers - and Ian McKellen's 1995 version, screenwritten by McKellen and director Richard Loncraine, in which McKellen also plays the title role.
While the Olivier version is the definitive classic presentation of the play on film and should serve anyone who wants to see the play as it was intended to be seen (albeit the Colley Cibber adaptation), McKellen's adaptation captures the spirit of the play in modern context.
The movie opens with the Lancastrians in their war room receiving word of Richard, Earl of Gloucester's holding Tewksbury by teletype, then soon their war room is breached by a tank, behind which swarm raiders in gas masks, one of whom slays the Prince of Wales and then the King himself, before removing his gas mask (one of the old goggle-eyed full-face models the Russians still use) to reveal himself Richard, duke of Gloucester.
The scene shifts rapidly to a typical 1930s rich people's fete, complete with mellow-voiced torch singer and live orchestra, at which Richard III delivers the "sun of York" soliloquy as a toast to his father Edward and the assembled party - and then the scene shifts again to Richard completing the soliloquy to the camera, as he does throughout the film. The address to the camera is a little jarring - McKellen's smiling, evilly smirking delivery is a little over the top, what you'd imagine the Blackadder films would have been if they hadn't gone for laughs.
But Ian McKellen carries the role off very well... his not-quite-sane, quite unbalanced and power-mad schemer Richard III is entirely plausible as a 1930s dictator-king in the central European mold. The uniforms shift from the standard British armed forces' khakis to the blacks and greys of Hitler and Mussolini as Britain slides into fascism under her scheming "Lord Protector."
The screen action is taut, visually compelling - even when McKellen bellows "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!" from a World War II Dodge weapons carrier/"command car," the scene doesn't degenerate into incongruous, unintentional comedy, because by then the viewer is caught up in the tale of this wild-eyed sociopath who has just about run out of rope - and since the truck is axle-deep in sand, stuck, a horse is just what Richard could have used around then.
There's just enough realism in the 1930's props to help with willing suspension of disbelief - no more. Military history buffs will not be happy. No matter. What is communicated very well is the senseless welter of fully-joined battle, fiery slaughter and Richard III's lashing out in senseless rage, eventually as much against his own men as the enemy.
The Duke of Stanley's last-minute defection against Richard's forces in the final battle is all the sharper for Stanley being the commander of the air force (his loyalty to Richard III in the coming battle with Henry, Earl of Richmond seemingly assured by his young son's being held hostage in Richard III's war train) - so that the viewer no sooner hears the news of the defection in the play's dialogue than Richard's forces are strafed and bombed by Stanley's war planes as Richmond's forces swarm into Richard's assembly area, cutting the Ricardian army to pieces.
Lots of interesting touches in the screenplay, such as Queen Elizabeth and her brother Earl Rivers (played ably by Annette Bening and rather indifferently by Robert Downey, Jr - who only manages to convince in the scene when he is assassinated in bed while submitting to the erotic ministrations of a Pan Am stewardess) playing their roles as Americans
using the homage to Wallis Simpson and her husband the Duke of
Windsor (who abdicated his kingdom to marry Simpson because she wasn't only a commoner but a divorced American) to bring needed tension among the royals to the play.
In case the viewer's a little too thick to realize that Downey's character is an American, not only does he lay the flat, nasal accent on thicker than Hell, but on landing in England, he steps out of an airliner painted in bright Pan-American Airlines livery, where he is met by his royal sister Elizabeth and her children.
Bening's performance is more nuanced and sympathetic than Downey's - the conundrum of Elizabeth's brother being a Peer and obviously an American at the same time is just left out there. But before long, we're McKellen's willing co-conspirators and agree to forget this lapse.
Maggie Smith as Richard's mother Queen Margaret is stellar in her portrayal of a mother torn between the remnants of love for her twisted, lethal offspring and mourning the rest of her family dead because they stood in Richard's way to the throne. Her delivery of Margaret's of the advice Elizabeth asks for on how to curse Richard (Act 4, Scene 4):
O thou well skill'd in curses, stay awhile, And teach me how to curse mine enemies!
Forbear to sleep the nights, and fast the days; Compare dead happiness with living woe; Think that thy babes were fairer than they were, And he that slew them fouler than he is!"
is one of the best-delivered lines in Shakespeare on film I have seen.
In closing one compares McKellen's Richard III to Anthony Hopkins' Hitler in "The Bunker" - an eerie channeling of one of history's foulest personalities, so that one feels one's self in his foul presence watching the show.
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