Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 25, 2013)
Seven years after Hamlet won him Best Actor and Best Picture Oscars, Laurence Olivier returned to the Shakespearean well with 1955’s Richard III. Set in 15th Century England, we arrive at the end of the War of the Roses and its battle for the crown. King Edward IV (Cedric Hardwicke) takes the throne, much to the dismay of Richard, Duke of Gloucester (Olivier) – and also Edward’s younger brother.
Richard boasts his own strong desire to become king, a fierce longing abetted by self-loathing related to his physical deformities. Ambition consumes Richard above all else, and any familial allegiances become meaningless in the face of his all-consuming quest to wear the crown. Thus we follow his path to become Richard III, King of England, which he achieves via much cunning and bloodshed – and which inevitably won’t last.
Should that go into “spoiler alert” territory? Probably not – when you discuss one of the most famous works in the English language, a piece created centuries earlier and based on history, I think it’s okay to say it doesn’t finish well for Richard.
The pleasure in Richard doesn’t come from the desire to find out whether the lead character gets away with all his villainy; it seems inevitable he won’t. We’re more curious to view the process along the way, as we dig into Richard’s ruthless attempts to ascend to the throne.
And that’s where the film works. Richard becomes a mesmerizing character, largely because he’s so unrepentant in his evil. While he winds his devious path, he does so with vivacity and wit. A precursor to modern “charming villains” like Hannibal Lecter, we may object to Richard’s actions but we delight in the execution of his cruelty.
While Olivier’s performance may seem mannered and “stagey” to contemporary audiences, I think he suits the role well. Face it: no matter how hard some may try to “modernize” Shakespeare, those works will always remain part of their period and threaten to put off viewers. Olivier really seemed to master Shakespeare. He gave the Bard’s work the right sense/feel and didn’t attempt any radical reinterpretations.
Even without these changes for the modern viewer, Olivier allows the material to become easily comprehendible. Granted, I’ve had limited exposure to Olivier’s Shakespeare – just Richard III and Hamlet - but those experiences showed that he boasted an ability to remain true enough to the source while he still made the works simple to digest.
That’s no mean feat, as I can’t think of any other adaptations of Shakespeare that drew me in as easily as Olivier’s. Take Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, for instance; while I appreciated that take, I could never invest in it, while I readily embraced Olivier’s version.
When I wrote up Branagh’s Hamlet, I struggled to figure out why I found that film to keep me at a distance while I became involved in Olivier’s. After a screening of Richard III, though, I think I better understand this. Olivier stages matters in such a smooth, concise manner that the language becomes… I don’t want to say incidental, but easier to digest.
Often when I watch Shakespeare, I fight with the dialogue. I can find the situations and characters difficult to interpret just because I battle through the speech; when I must devote most of my viewing time to the simple understanding of the spoken language, I can’t invest in the meaning as well and end up distanced from the material.
Through performances and staging, Olivier eliminates these concerns. As I said, I would never want to disregard Shakespeare’s much-praised dialogue as unnecessary; much of the pleasure here comes from the elegance and inventiveness of the lines.
The viewer should find it much easier to appreciate Shakespeare’s work in Olivier’s interpretation simply because the director stages everything else so well. Again, he makes the situations and characterizations so clear that the lines become less crucial; they embellish but don’t act as our sole method of guidance through the narrative.
I can’t overstate how important that becomes and how much more accessible – and enjoyable – it makes Shakespeare. Olivier’s Richard gives the story a good sense of movement and progress so it never feels like a basic filmed version of a stage production. However, he doesn’t go crazy and deliver theatrics for their own sake. Olivier concentrates on the story and characters at the flick’s core.
Across the board, Richard boasts fine performances, especially in regard to Olivier’s lead. While he can occasionally seem a little “stagey”, he usually manages to tamp down any tendencies toward broadness. Olivier eliminates most signs of hamminess and invests the character with all the guile, intelligence and cold-hearted determination required.
All of these factors add up to a thoroughly enjoyable version of Richard III. Perhaps some would argue that others interpreted Shakespeare better than Olivier, and perhaps some would be correct. All I know is that I’ve never liked Shakespeare as much when placed in other hands; Olivier does the trick for me.