Long considered to be the most unconventional adaptation of a Shakespeare play, Richard III would take the same approach as Julie Taymor's Titus, which would follow two years later, in that their respective play's events would be transported to an alternate setting that blends disparate elements of both time, culture, and political aesthetics. While Titus utilized a blend of castle-era England with slightly futuristic underpinnings, Richard III smartly constructs a World War II-like juxtaposition of Nazi iconography with that of British and American military and Russian architecture. Ah yes, and Die Hard. That's right. One might think that Shakespeare and John McClane were destined for their own paths and never the twain shall meet, but that's the beauty of Richard III. Strip away the intimidation of Shakespeare's prose along with the 1930s Nazi propaganda, and Richard, Duke of York, and co., are presented as terrorists hijacking the crown with their tanks and their machine guns, and holding the title hostage.
Richard (Ian McKellen), younger brother of Edward, now the new king, is a man who craves the anarchy and destruction of war, and following their stealing of the crown, he has found himself withered and bored. Without a war to fight, Richard turns his piercing blue eyes to his own family, where he will create his own brand of anarchy. McKellen, who co-wrote the screenplay adaptation, wisely keeps the wry humor of Shakespeare intact, which is clear in moments such as when the film cleverly reveals that the titular Duke of York confides directly in the audience all of his evil masterminding...while taking a leak into a royal urinal and complaining of his boredom. (And let's not forget his hurling an apple at a penned boar and smiling as the animal squeals in pain.) Because Shakespeare is force-fed to students in schools, his extremely unique and dense verbiage not helping matters, his use of humor and his willingness to shed blood is not at the forefront of many minds outside of the bard's most dedicated. McKellen seems to realize this in his depiction of both, presenting a story that is often just as captivating for the events occurring on screen as the words gushing rapid-fire out of their mouths. (Every actor on board ably and exhaustively captures Shakespeare's words, but it's Maggie Smith as the Duchess of York who steals every scene in which she appears. Her last exchange with McKellen is absolutely devastating.)
Richard III is an elegant collection of performances (look for a quite young Dominic West of "The Wire"), writing, direction, production - everything that makes a film is present and accounted for. The subtle and meta winking/nudging that intimates some of the film's characters are occasionally aware their trials and tribulations are playing out on a stage for the entertainment of an audience is a technique that both recognizes the role of the play/the film, but also contributes to the conspiratorial design of the story itself. Like Titus, it is a daring and carnal story that preserves all the machinations, deceit, and humor of its source material while reimagining the events with clever and even appropriate modernistic flair.
Richard III results in one of the best adaptations of a Shakespeare work while also providing one of Ian McKellen's best performances. As thespians always say, it's so much more fun to go bad, and between this and McKellen's other villainous turns in the X-Men series and Apt Pupil, he also ably proves that he's so good at it. Often overshadowed by the 1955 adaptation featuring the legendary Laurence Olivier, this iteration of Richard III is not only severely underrated, but ultimately superior. A thrilling story and an impressive cast make this essential viewing to students of Shakespeare and devotees of uncompromising film.
Long live King Richard.