The United Kingdom in the nineteen-thirties, but not as history quite recalls it, as the King and his army have been struck down by the forces of York, and Edward (John Wood) has taken the throne, although he is not in the best of health. The man who shot the previous monarch is Edward's brother, Richard (Ian McKellen), and he has plans of his own, plans which he does not share with many people so you should feel privileged that he takes you into his confidence. After making a rousing speech at a celebratory dance, he ends up alone, plotting and plotting, informing us that he will not rest until he has the crown himself...
For many years, the definitive screen interpretation of William Shakespeare's most celebrated villain, Richard III, was Laurence Olivier's in his 1955 version of the play, but forty years later there arrived a different reading, one which, though not as widely seen, was at least the equal of Olivier's. This was a pet project of Sir Ian McKellen's, and to bring this adaptation, which he co-scripted with director Richard Loncraine, to the screen took a lot of work, all of which paid off as the finished production was something most would agree was highly imaginative and rather marvellous.
For a start, the setting is inspired. It takes the old science fiction concept of a parallel world and runs with it, translating the Bard's drama to a Britain that is suffering under the yoke of fascism: here it is not only Germany which is struggling with the Nazis, as Richard and his allies are fulfilling the same role in their own country. You get the impression that this Richard is not so much obsessed with becoming supreme ruler, as taking down the world which he abhors, leaving the dead bodies of the powerful strewn in his wake and the nation, the world even, in as much turmoil as he can possibly bring down upon its heads.
In this version, the script is streamlined from Shakespeare, so if you know the play inside out then you will be noticing what's missing and what has been altered, but unlike other films drawn from literature, this should not rankle too much with the purists. Why? Because it's so gleefully smart about what it does, crediting the audience with the intelligence to see how clever its being without descending into unwanted, obnoxious smugness. Much of this is thanks to McKellen: he may give himself the meatiest role, but he allows you to see there was nobody who could have carried this off any better than he.
It's a tremendous performance, humorous, sly, and calculating but never letting Richard's twisted humanity get away from him. The other members of an excellent cast do well to keep up with him, with a good many seizing their chances to shine when the spotlight falls on them, but really this is Sir Ian's show all the way. Working up a sense of decadence and decay that the new broom of Richmond (Dominic West) would do well to sweep away, not only does the film have Richard happy to execute his closest allies as well as those in the way to his kingdom, but will also see him relaxing with photographs of the recently put to death or turning into a man-boar during a nightmare sequence. With all this and a rally out of thirties Nuremberg and Lady Anne (Kristin Scott Thomas) injecting herself with heroin to get through the coronation, you cannot say it was not audacious, and you cannot say you do not relish every frame of Richard's wickedness. Music by Trevor Jones.