The Bard modernized: When it works and when it doesn't
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Richard III (1995)
Directed by Richard Loncraine
Strongest cast member: No surprise here: Shakespeare virtuoso Ian McKellen shines in the lead role with all the monstrosity, sliminess and fierce ambition that makes a great Richard III performance captivating. It’s a treat to watch him deftly switch gears from flattering smiles for the court and the sneering contempt he has for them all behind their backs. He had time to get comfortable in the role, and it shows: Loncraine made the film after staging a production with the same setting and concept for the Royal National Theatre, which also starred McKellen.
Why it breathed new life into Shakespeare: This adaptation made the risky move of re-imagining a history play as taking place in a whole different era of European history. McKellen’s Richard III climbs his way to power not during the Wars of the Roses but instead in a fascist version of 1930s Britain. Though viewers must dismiss this world as fictionalized history, it works. Loncraine creates a striking aesthetic akin to images of the Third Reich, earning the film Oscar nominations for production design and costuming. The flags of Richard’s rule are a lot like the Nazi flag, except the swastika has been replaced by a black and white boar, Richard III’s emblem. The film became a reflection on the persistence of cruelty in political leaders as Shakespeare’s villainous depiction of a Middle Ages king was easily transported to a depiction of a more recent oppressive rule.
Other cast: Annette Bening, Robert Downey Jr., Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jim Broadbent, Dominic West