+ Recommended – R, Drama
A challenge is always presented when adapting a Shakespearean text for a general audience. Do the filmmakers adapt the screenplay into a modern setting or leave it in the fictional past? Richard Loncraine and Ian McKellen decided to take their 1995 film into a 1930s setting within fascist England. Oddly enough, the setting lends an exceptional platform for the plot of the play to bloom.
Loncraine and McKellen had an estimated budget of 6 million dollars to produce believable costumes and film in real UK locations. One of the biggest accomplishments achieved on the films budget is the casting. McKellen plays Richard in a subtle yet terrifying manner and I believed that the other characters couldn’t always determine what his character’s intentions actually were. The opening scene in which Richard storms Henry’s compound displays the brute violence Richard is known for; he is described by some as a great warrior. After he murders Henry and his son with a machine gun, the audience has a fairly good idea that Richard will go to extreme lengths to get what he wants.
The setting aids the violence because if it were set in the original time-period the audience wouldn’t be shown this level of violence. Terrifyingly enough, the violence used in this film is relevant to today’s political climate. In my opinion, that makes this act of murder more jarring. The audience understands that Richard doesn’t care about anyone but himself as where in other versions, such as Laurence Olivier’s 1955 version, Richard was certainly more low-key and somewhat hidden from the public eye. There was no way to tell how far that version’s Richard would go in certain situations, at least not right off the bat, and that becomes the opposite with this Richard.
Jazz music lends to the setting and the tone of the overall film. In the beginning we are treated to a majestic ballroom scene which feels like something right out of a USO club. The music triggers certain feelings from war and post-war experiences for audiences, especially for those that would have been watching this movie in 1995. In addition to the recollection aspect of the music, it appropriately matches the plot as it unfolds. Its lofty nature reflects the vibrant language that Shakespeare communicates throughout the play; sometimes subtly easing viewers between scenes and other times by foreboding death and uncertainty.
Another aspect of the films budget which deserves praise is the titular battle scene towards the end of the film. As mentioned previously, this film doesn’t shy away from the violence of Richard’s schemes. Within the scene, several people die as bombs drop and tanks destroy whole buildings, proving that Richard doesn’t have any remorse for what he has done. Even as Richard plummets to his death, he smiles grimly; this reference goes back to the very beginning of the film, where he uses a line from Henry VI to directly speak to the audience, “Why, I can smile, and murder while I smile!”
However, while the film does some things brilliantly, I couldn’t help but feel as if it wasn’t as strong as other Shakespeare adaptations and I can’t quite pinpoint what felt off. When people died I didn’t feel tension. As where previous versions felt tragic and heartfelt, this version seemed to exist because it wanted to be smart. I think that disconnect left me saying, “Well, it was a really good adaptation. But it wasn’t my favorite.” However, the film does enough right to warrant multiple viewings. There are too many ways to interpret the many different Shakespeare texts and unfortunately, that means some screen adaptations aren’t always going to land with every audience member. Loncraine and McKellen do deserve credit for taking the classic in a different, yet familiar, direction.