I don’t know how I managed it miss this when it first came out (I’ll chalk it down to being technically underage for the rating – but that was 20 years ago), but I’ve heard so much about it since that finally managing to see Ian McKellen’s Richard III felt like an event.
For those of you who’ve had your head even further under a rock than mine is, and have somehow missed the iconic imagery, this production is set in an alternate thirties England, all stylish deco and bias-cut frocks, with some wonderfully knowing nods and winks to the real historical period. Some of these mere coincidence is responsible for – a king called Edward with a younger brother called George* and the eventual heir to the throne being a girl called Elizabeth. Many others were helped on their way by the staging – giving Edward an American wife, for example, or putting Richmond in a naval uniform.
Now I am a massive fan of both Richard III and the period, so this was obviously always going to be a delight, but the level of effort that went in was really superb. The use of Senate House, Bankside (before it was famous, when it was still that unloved wreck on the south bank which secretly I must admit I prefer – even if it is a bit hipster of me to say I liked it before it was cool), Battersea Power Station. The costumes, the fabulous set dressing. The use of fascist iconography, with the undertone of eugenics and the body beautiful which fits so well with Richard’s opening monologue.
Richard’s deformities were done very well – a subtly smaller pupil in one eye, a twist of the lips, a hunch more hinted at in tailoring than apparent, the way he kept his left hand hidden so that when he finally put it on display we were as shocked as the characters around him – although that wasn’t the worst moment of the film – when we see Lady Anne dead and a spider walks across her eyeball the audience audibly recoiled.
The whole cast was brilliant, if somewhat off-puttingly famous (Horace Slughorn, Carson the Butler and Iron Man sharing a scene can do that to you). Perhaps most jarring was the reminder of how baby-faced young Dominic West was, now he’s grown into a craggy attractiveness, and the difference between Maggie Smith made up as old** and actually being old.
The quality of the acting actually leads to my only significant complaint with the film – between cutting Queen Margaret entirely as a character, and giving Princess Elizabeth only about two lines*** the female representation in this film has been cut dramatically. Some of it is clawed back by making Queen Elizabeth appear a more active mover in the final plotting than I recall from the play, and making both Annette Benning’s and Kristin Scott Thomas’s scenes pack such a powerful punch; but I won’t deny my feminist antenna was set a-twitching.
Overall, it is such a brilliant, enthralling ride that I can see why people have been raving about it for so long! It’s also – finally – about to be released on DVD, so if you haven’t seen it yet you can. In fact, it so good I’m almost glad I’ve waited this long to see. It presents such a powerful vision of Richard III that I think it might be hard to develop your own independently of such strong first impressions. Instead, it’s set me up nicely for a summer of Richards (Benedict Cumberbatch and Ralph Fiennes here we come) – and perhaps a nice bias-cut silk frock…
* Although the relevant George was known as Albert until he became King, and the two of them had two younger brothers; Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, and Prince George, Duke of Kent. Prince Henry would have been Elizabeth II’s regent had she been under the age of 18 when her father died, but luckily showed no propensity for throwing her into the tower…
** In 1995 she was only 61. Ian McKellen, playing her youngest son of three, was 56 at the time. So she’s definitely being aged up!
*** And those both at the end – I seriously thought she might manage to be an entirely non-speaking part just welded to her mother…