Technology with attitude

Movie Review: Lawrence Olivier’s RICHARD III Overcomes the Limitations of Shakespeare’s Play



I’ve always felt that William Shakespeare’s Richard III was a great villain in search of a better play.  The title character takes advantage of the still-fresh acrimony lingering in the wake of the War of the Roses, scheming and murdering his way onto the throne, and he does so…because he can, really.  Shakespeare pays lip service to the psychology of the beast (he’s too ugly, he’s too deformed, he’s too conniving to be anything but bad), yet at the end of the day, Richard goes about dismantling the aristocracy simply “to prove a villain” and exercise his powers of persuasion.

While the exact dates for these kinds of things are fuzzy, scholars estimate that Shakespeare wrote the play fairly early in the context of his oeuvre, and that makes sense, considering that, in some ways, Richard feels like a test run for some of Shakespeare’s greatest creations – he has Shylock’s self-loathing, Iago’s sly genius, and Macbeth’s ambition – but he outstrips the rest in pure malevolence, and that venality has allowed the play to endure.

Too bad the piece surrounding Richard doesn’t match his skillful villainy.  This is a long play, overstuffed with references to other Shakespearean works and English history, and none of the scaffolding surrounding Richard is as compelling as he is.  Granted, Shakespeare isn’t the only man to risk upstaging the fabric of his own work with a too-potent Big Bad (although he might be the first, come to think of it, and as works like King Lear, Othello, and The Merchant of Venice demonstrate, he was habitually afflicted by this condition), but you wish he could have given Richard-foils like Clarence and Lady Anne and Catesby and Richmond more to do besides a) get murdered, b) serve Richard, or c) kill Richard.  Hamlet showed that Shakespeare’s heroes could possess the same complexity of spirit and manner as the bad guys did, but I guess that talent was still nascent when the Bard composed Richard III.

Plus, all of Richard’s machinations start to look the same after a while: Richard figures out who poses a threat to his ascendance; he makes up some nonsense prophecy branding the offending figure guilty; and he has that person killed.  I realize that Shakespeare was honoring the mindsets of people who relied on the shapes in the stars more than facts and deeds, but the back-stage political maneuvering that made Julius Caesar and Coriolanus so intriguing is in short supply here.

The good news about Lawrence Olivier’s screen adaptation, then, is that Olivier seems to recognize this shortcoming, and he takes major steps towards correcting it, eliding large subplots that distract from the main attraction.  Major characters like Clarence (a touching John Gielgud) come off as bit players in the movie, and this editorial decision refocuses the picture around Richard.  Even at a hefty 158 minutes, the movie has an increased economy of purpose; Olivier knows whom you came to see, and he doesn’t want to disappoint.

And his Richard remains the definitive screen Richard.  Buried under mounds of prosthetics and bulky clothes, Olivier becomes a genuine screen monster – he’s all lurching, gnarled menace, with a bulky, sinuous shadow that Olivier likes to cast looming over the on-screen events as if possessing them.  It’s a startling, remarkably physical performance, and it’s all the more unsettling because Olivier directs much of it at us.  In his past Shakespeare adaptations, Olivier has dealt with the soliloquys in different fashions; for Hamlet, he adopted a voiceover track, while in Henry V he had his monologuing characters speak directly to an on-screen audience that represented spectators at the Globe Theatre.

Here, Olivier breaks the fourth wall and commiserates with the home audience whenever Richard wants to revel in his deeds.  As a stylistic device, it’s bracing, and one that has influenced pictures as diverse as the romantic comedy High Fidelity and the modern-day Richard III proxy House of Cards.  Thematically, though, it makes perfect sense that Richard would turn to an outside audience to reveal himself.  In his warped mind, everyone in the king’s court is a potential threat, yet he can’t contain his own boundless ambition, so when he needs to gloat, he gloats to us.  After all, we can’t indict him (though, I suppose we can turn off the TV).

Olivier is so good that it’s easier to overlook the bland set decorations and flat characterizations (only Ralph Richardson impresses as the Duke of Buckingham, whose affable charm masks a vile, sociopathic operator), though I wonder if Olivier made the accoutrements underwhelming by design; Richard seems so much more potent when he lords over these stick figures and obvious sets, and so much weaker when the film shifts gears to the plains at Bosworth Field and the (legitimate) natural surroundings overtake him.  In that sense, the film warps itself to suit him – ever as it should be.

Criterion’s Blu-ray offers one of the finest transfers of a Technicolor property that I have ever seen; last year, the Film Foundation gave Richard III a 4K digital restoration, and the results are as stunning as Warner’s Singin’ in the Rain Blu-ray.  Colors are vivid without smearing or losing texture, and fine detail is sharp and clean (you can see the makeup lines on Olivier’s fake nose).  The monaural LPCM track does a nice job of capturing the dialogue, but honestly, the visuals are the whole show – I recommend the disc for any fans of 1950s Technicolor properties, regardless of their affinity for Richard III.

Supplements are characteristically terrific.  We get a commentary from playwright Russell Lees and RSC governor John Wilders; an extended interview with Lawrence Olivier on the BBC series “Great Acting”; a twelve-minute television trailer for the film; a behind-the-scenes/production gallery interspersed with excerpts from Olivier’s autobiography, On Acting; the theatrical trailer; a booklet with an essay from critic Amy Taubin; and – best of all – a restoration demonstration hosted by director Martin Scorsese.

Richard III is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.