Of all of Laurence Olivier’s Shakespeare films, my absolute favorite remains Richard III (1955), one of the best (if not entirely complete) film renditions of the story. The play, as the title indicates, follows the titular Richard, brother of Edward IV (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) as he rises in power to become Richard III, last king of the Plantagenet dynasty. The cast is full of talent, the principal players are as follows:
- Richard III: Laurence Olivier
- Edward IV: Sir Cedric Hardwicke
- Clarence (brother of Edward and Richard): Sir John Gielgud
- Duke of Buckingham: Sir Ralph Richardson
- The Lady Anne (Richard’s wife): Claire Bloom
- Henry, Earl of Richmond (Henry VII): Stanley Baker
From start to finish, Olivier’s Richard dominates the story. Similar to Iago in Othello, the future king hides his true motives from all but a few (namely the Duke of Buckingham his confidante) and to most of the court appears to be brusque, awkward, but a gentleman regardless. Nothing could be further from the truth: Richard more than anything wants the crown of England, but his brothers Edward and George, the Duke of Clarence (not to mention Edward’s sons) stand in his way. To achieve this goal, Richard resorts to murder, threats, and outright playacting to get what he wants.
Olivier’s acting is so versatile, it’s a delight to watch him at work. When he talks directly to the audience, as in the “Now is the winter of our discontent” monologue, he speaks as if he’s talking to a fellow conspirator. When he woos the Lady Anne, he lays the charm on so unbelievably thick that you almost believe he’s sincere…until Anne leaves and Richard reveals that this was all part of the plan. The only time Richard lets his ‘mask’ slip is when young Richard of York, his nephew, taunts him by saying that his uncle Richard should carry him on his humpbacked shoulder. This invokes one of the oldest storytelling tropes: no villain can stand to be mocked. Olivier created this moment from scratch, there’s no precedent for it in previous adaptations. In that moment, he turns and stares at young Richard with an absolute death glare, sending the young prince stumbling backward in fright. Oddly, no one else (except for maybe Buckingham) seems to catch this moment.
Another scene I like comes late in the story when Richard (with Buckingham’s help) has finally convinced the people to have him proclaimed king. As the people leave to prepare for the coronation, Buckingham walks up to congratulate his friend, only to be stopped short as Richard thrusts his hand out, signalling that Buckingham should instead kneel before him. It’s an abrupt moment, one that clearly shows that things are not as they were between the two.
I said at the beginning that this adaptation was not entirely complete and that’s because a lot of material is cut out. This is one of Shakespeare’s longer works, a complete performance would last upward of four hours, so for a film naturally some parts had to be cut out. One of the biggest changes is the removal of Queen Margaret (the widow of Henry VI) from the story. This is huge because Margaret’s ‘curses’ play a crucial role in the story. Also, the roles of the Duchess of York (Richard’s mother) and Queen Elizabeth (Edward IV’s wife) are severely reduced as well (you can see more of their performances in The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses).
If you like Shakespeare on film, you will love Richard III. A fully restored copy can be bought from the Criterion Collection (in fact this was the first Criterion film I ever owned) and is well worth the price. Let me know what you think of Richard III in the comments below and have a great day 🙂
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