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Richard III brings masterpiece to modern audiences

Richard III

Directed by Richard Loncraine.

Written by Ian McKellen and Richard Loncraine.

Based on a stage production by Richard Eyre; from the play by William Shakespeare.

Starring Ian McKellen, Annette Bening, Jim Broadbent, Robert Downey Jr., Nigel Hawthorne, Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith, and John Wood.

Kendall Square Cinema.

By Scott C. Deskin

For most people, the prospect of going to a Shakespeare play is a fate worse than being condemned to watch the latest Pauly Shore movie. They believe in entertainment that doesn't tax the mind too much, doesn't intrude on the daily drama of American life, or avoids pretensions associated with "high art." But most people are mistaken; they fail to recognize that Shakespeare's plays are written in the language of his day and were instantly accessible to his contemporaries. Problems arise when stage producers feel it necessary to stick to Shakespeare's original text and settings as if they were gospel. This approach leaves many modern audiences out in the cold.

Even when translated to the big screen, Shakespeare plays can often feel too rote and constrained. The latest instance of Shakespeare on film, Richard III, attempts to dispel this feeling of "boredom." The basic story is the same: The evil Richard of Gloucester (Ian McKellen) emerges from a bloody civil war victorious, along with the rest of the York faction. He sets his sights on the throne, secretly implicating his younger brother Clarence (Nigel Hawthorne) as traitor to the royal court headed by his older brother King Edward (John Wood). Richard enlists top government aides and a few select henchman to make his dream of becoming king a reality. Along the way, he must get rid of his brothers, deal with the Queen Elizabeth (Annette Bening) and her protective cousin Earl Rivers (Robert Downey Jr.), and prevent Edward's sons -- Richard's own young nephews -- from claiming the throne.

The novelty here is that the setting is shifted to 1930s England, and Richard is made over as an Anglicized Hitler -- complete with close-cropped hair, trademark moustache, and huge chip on his shoulder (here, physical deformity: a hunchback and a twisted, vestigial left arm). His reign of terror doesn't end with the brutal killing of the reigning King Henry and his heir Prince Edward at the end of the war; his family members are mere stepping stones and his closest personal allies are tools for him to reach a position of ultimate power. As a villain, he is shifty-eyed and gleefully unrelenting: He seems to enjoy deceiving and tormenting others. As a hellbound soul, he knows he's doomed in the afterlife, so he rarely falls prey to his conscience and personal demons: When he does, toward the end of the film, his grief is a subconscious purge of bad memories, nothing exceedingly heartfelt or penitent. And, as a protagonist, he makes his asides directly to the audience; that way, we get a glimpse of what drives his single-minded desire to manifest his evil in pursuit of the crown.

There are other deft touches which distinguish the production. Casting the Queen Elizabeth and Earl Rivers roles as Americans not only lends international appeal to the film but also paints those characters as outsiders to the established York family. The set design is imaginative, with a miniaturized industrial-age London teeming with uniformed officers and the imposing, concrete Tower of London looming at the edge of town (actually an abandoned power station on the Thames, built in the 1930s). The rally that precedes Richard's coronation includes art deco-style murals (reminiscent of 1920s Soviet worker poster) in the back rooms as well as huge red banners decorating the arena whose central logo, a black boar, easily stands in for a swastika.

All told, the film seems eager to please a contemporary audience and tries almost everything to give some spice to a an old story. Director Richard Loncraine and McKellen, in making this engaging adaptation, necessarily had to cut some of the characters and dialogue, but I think the original intent of the story is intact. It's not fair to give all of it away, but the twentieth century setting does provide a few novel bits of visual humor tied to Richard's immortal utterances ("Now is the winter of our discontent" no more than "My kingdom for a horse!"). The acting is very good, especially that of McKellen, Bening, and Maggie Smith as Richard's long-suffering mother. This version of Richard III may not be a masterpiece, but it's an enjoyable way to pass a few hours -- and it helps reinvent the genre in much the same way as Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction did for gangster pictures.