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Action Antihero

Richard III Web Extra!

An interview with screenwriter/actor Ian McKellen

Everything you need to know about Richard III

    Sir Ian McKellen, the British actor who brought his conception of Shakespeare's Richard III to San Francisco three years ago, stars in a new and almost criminally audacious film version. This new Richard, directed by Richard Loncraine, is set in a parallel universe version of England in the 1930s, a country which has succumbed to internal fascists. This political climate is mirrored in period uniforms, tiled morgues and totalitarian architecture--some real and some imaginary (we see a matte of the Tower of London as if designed by Albert Speer). Thus, Richard comes to an end not at Bosworth Field but at the abandoned Battersea Power Station, the architectural monstrosity seen on the cover of Pink Floyd's Animals: a monument of crypto-fascist architecture--you feel something brutish stirring in you just looking at it.

    The same feelings of dirty exhilaration are roused by McKellen's marvelous antihero, who gets a pretitle sequence nearly as involved as one of James Bond's. We meet at the celebration of the end of the civil war. Richard is bored; he's a fighter, not a lover, owing to a few physical defects, such as a hunchback, a withered arm and a limp. So, he will show us his methods in killing the various extraneous relatives that stand between him and the throne. He can lie, he can fawn--and he will teach Machiavelli himself a few tactics by the time the play is over.

    And indeed he does: marrying Ann (Kristin Scott Thomas), the widow of the man he killed in battle; tricking the King into killing his own brother; imprisoning a pair of little princes; and then--an especially low blow--cheating his henchman out of his pay. Naturally, there's a comeuppance; having pushed too hard, he faces a counter-reaction, and Richard dies, frantically calling for a horse (from a half-destroyed jeep) in the one line from the play people can be counted on to remember.

    McKellen's Richard III is a monument of well-spoken and unrepentant villainy. Watching McKellen is like having Vincent Price back, only Price reborn as a much finer actor. The hooded, cavernous eyes, the crooked mouth, the repellent mustache (waxed for maximum vileness) suggest not only upper-class rottenness but more common thuggery. King Richard, his Queen wasting away by his side, loves watching movies of his coronation, like Hitler watching Triumph of the Will again and again, or Nixon obsessing on a 16mm copy of Patton.

    McKellen's performance is a great raspy pleasure, and Loncraine supports it ably, as in the Duke of Clarence's soliloquy on death by drowning performed by Nigel Hawthorne at an industrial cistern surrounded by water. (Hawthorne may be remembered as the mad King George in last year's film.) Occasionally, an actor isn't up to their company--Annette Bening trying sturdily but uneasily to rise to the lines in the tough part of Elizabeth praying for mercy--but usually the smaller parts are as diverting as McKellen. The casting includes Robert Downey Jr. as Earl Rivers, a tuxedoed wastrel, Maggie Smith as Richard's mom, who roundly hates him, and Jim Broadbent (of Life Is Sweet) as the credulous Buckingham, in jodhpurs and round eyeglasses, the very image of Goering.

    McKellen and Loncraine have made a film that will sit peacefully on the shelf next to the 1954 Richard III, in many ways the best of Olivier's filmed Shakespeares and an irreplaceable record of one of the few actors who deserves his reputation. (John Barrymore, an actor who perhaps does not, also did one of Richard's soliloquies from Henry VI, seated on a pyramid of skulls in the early sound movie Show of Shows.) Olivier's Richard is a seductive androgen, strangely alluring in a Bettie Page coiffure.

    The Olivier version was conscious of the theater's proscenium arch--though Olivier manipulates even that, pulling himself back into the stage to give his Shakespearean roars some echo. The new Richard is much more pure cinema, full of shock, a nightmare sequence, a live razorback hog (in honor of Richard's heraldric boar) and dive-bombers. Director Loncraine merrily thieves the bombastic titles from Die Hard and makes the finale a salute to the James Cagney film White Heat, with Richard on his way to a hotter climate than this world offers accompanied by Al Jolson's raucous "Sittin' on Top of the World."

    Watching either of these two versions you might think of all the time you've burnt up watching milksop good guys, wishing them ill, waiting for the villain to come back. This Richard III is all charismatic dastard, the first great antihero in Western literature.

    For its perennial and strangely modern qualities--after four centuries, it's probably the most popular of melodramas--the 1592 Richard III was not a completely unprecedented play. Shakespeare was following the lead of his contemporary, Christopher Marlowe, who had a few years previously made villains the centerpieces of his play (as in his first success, Tamburlaine). Marlowe also invoked Machiavelli years earlier than Shakespeare. The difference is that while Marlowe takes almost cartoonish delight in characters whacking each other, Shakespeare's words stir our sympathy for a warped, unrepentant character's rise and fall.

    The sole failing of the movie--and this might be out of its scope--is that after wrapping itself in the look of fascinating fascism, it spares the public's complicity in such rule: how the populace, after years of uncertainty, might be led to embrace a Richard III. How they sleep better at night knowing he is their king, to paraphrase Chuck Colson's deathless remark about Richard Nixon.

    Richard III, directed by Richard Loncraine, written by Loncraine and Ian McKellen, photographed by Peter Biziou, and starring McKellen, Annette Bening, Nigel Hawthorne and Maggie Smith.

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From the January 18-24, 1996 issue of Metro.
© 1996 Metro Publishing Inc., San Jose, CA. All rights reserved. Reproduction
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