A Review of Richard III (1998) starring Ian Mckellen and Annette Bening
When one looks at the United Kingdom, one naturally expects to find certain things. Among these are crumpets, tea, drivers sitting on the right hand side of automobiles, double-deck buses, and a deep and abiding love for the largely symbolic hereditary monarchy. These, we have been led to believe by popular fiction, television, and current events to believe are some of the cornerstones of that elusive quality that one might describe as ‘Englishness’. In our modern world, we have a somewhat quaint view of what it means to be English that doesn’t always match up with the historical realities of the past. Far from being home to a people with centuries of hobbit like habits, England has witnessed a multitude of atrocities and wars and has been instrumental in shaping many of the policies that have directly led to mass genocide, civil wars, totalitarian regimes, and many of the other evils that have plagued humanity through the ages of recorded history.
Some of the bloodiest episodes in English history are known as the ‘Wars of the Roses’. These wars were fought between two houses of nobility that still have a huge rivalry in the modern world. Lucky for England, this antagonism usually finds its place on the sporting field today. Not so in the 1400’s when the Houses of Lancaster and York fought horrible bloody battles to take control of the English throne. One of the worlds most beloved writers, William Shakespeare, wrote of these events in a number of his plays. Among them was Richard III.
Richard III tells the story of how Richard III of the house of York wins the kingship of England for his brother and then resorts to treachery and deceit in order to take the crown for himself. The events that Shakespeare wrote about were roughly historical and placed in the time when the events themselves took place. The story, like many of Shakespeare’s works has inspired many adaptations in literature and film. One of these, also titled Richard III, is an adaptation written by and starring Ian McKellen. It is an interesting take on the original play in many ways.
Ian McKellen’s, Richard III, takes place in a much more modern England than that of Shakespeare’s. The events in this film seem to be taking place during the time between the two world wars in the early part of the 20thcentury. This scene in time is set by the costume, music, and affectations of the actors more than through the architecture or sets themselves. The story is clearly, the story of Richard III and the destruction of the house of York, but set in more modern times. Events outside of England are not eluded to in the film in any direct way, but instead the events of the outside world that changed the course of history are superimposed upon England itself.
Using the trappings of a modern charismatic leader, Richard uses propaganda, lies, and trickery to steal the throne of England just as the fascist German dictator; Adolf Hitler did in real life Germany. Much of the mise en scene of this film is utilized to encourage this connection. In several scenes Richard is put in nearly identical placement to famous photographs of the Nazi leader. The color red plays a large part in this as it is the main color of the standard that Richard has draped behind him when he assumes power in a huge Nazi like rally. This clever iconography allows the greater part of the film to not only tell the original Shakespearean tale but also to delve into deeper psychological meanings that question the meaning of what it actually is to be English.
There is no denying that Richard is English, but he is certainly not the mild mannered, crumpet eating, tea loving, double-decker bus riding, English caricature that we have been taught to expect in the modern world. No, Richard is pure evil. Everything about this film gives us a philosophical truth in regards to the choices that all men and women are forced to make and the things within us that live or die because of those choices. Richard is a man that chooses evil and he does so knowingly. When handed an apple to feed to a pig, Richard hurls it at the animal to hurt it, but not until after a moment’s pause of consideration. He is making the conscious choice. Shakespeare and McKellen make this perfectly clear by having Richard utilize asides to the audience while he is in the midst of making these decisions.
The camera angles used for these asides are interesting. Throughout the film, when Richard is in conversation with various people, the camera angle is used to show his position in relation to them. In the beginning of the film, when Richard has not yet seized power for his brothers, he is seen at an even level. This symbolizes the fact that Richard does not see himself below anyone, even the King that he initially murders. Gradually as Richard gains power, the angle of the camera becomes steeper and steeper until finally, everyone is shown to be looking up at Richard. Everyone except the re recipients of his asides. When Richard speaks to the camera, it is he who looks upward. The camera holds authority over him.
One can speculate that Richard is not, in fact, speaking to the audience. Richard is speaking to God. Richard is detailing the evil of his plans and doing so in such a way that he knows that he must go straight to hell. Why would he do this? One can speculate that a man born deformed and probably taunted throughout his life, unable to achieve things as easily as his able bodied brothers, would have a chip on his shoulder. Richard has a grudge against God and his way of working that grudge out is to knowingly detail and commit evil. Richard’s goal is to defile beauty. He defiles the beauty of his wife, his family, his country, and his title.
Richard III is a brilliant film about much more than a civil war or a power hungry tyrant. Richard III is about the choices that each of us make. It is about power and the corruption of power. It is about beauty and the destruction of beauty. It is about crumpets and tea and the violence that hide beneath their seemingly harmless and bland exteriors.