Richard III (1955), Laurence Olivier (director)

Daniel J. Rowe

Though in a certain sense dated, Olivier’s Richard III is a great piece of film largely thanks to the director/star’s scene chewing greatness.

When looking at William Shakespeare’s work on film, one will, in a very short time, collide with “cinema’s first great Shakespearean artist“, the godfather of them all, Sir Laurence Olivier.

Richard III is the final of his three directorial efforts (he acted in eight); the other two being Hamlet (1948) and Henry V (1944). He began what Orson Welles and Kenneth Branagh continued. Branagh, like Olivier, started his bard-on-film odyssey with Henry V. Sir Kenneth followed that promise by bumbling through roles he had no business playing (Hamlet, Iago), and hasn’t done much for a while. Here’s hoping he doesn’t decide to cast himself as R III.

Olivier’s Richard III suffers from one thing: age. It is hard for a contemporary viewer to appreciate the film when Richard Loncraine’s 1995 adaptation is staring us in the face. Sir Ian McKellen’s Richard is just so sexy. The ascetic of Olivier’s R III suffers datedness in three respects: costumes, set and music. Oh the music. So bad.

By the way, are we a little fast and loose with the knighthoods Windsors? I guess all it takes is making a few Shakespeare movies and you’re in.

The “it’s dated” criticism, even with the billowy tights and static sets, misses the forest for the trees however (ask Macbeth the consequences of that). Richard III is always about the title character. If Richard is good, so goes the production. Olivier is, surprise, surprise, very good. He bounces through his manipulation of the Yorkish court with the cheshire cat grin of a true sadist. He loves what he’s doing, and dreads it in the same scene at times. His soliloques to camera are chilling, as are his “friendly” moments with his nephews. Olivier, as per normal, chews up the scenery.

His directorial choices, as well, work. He splits speeches and changes the order or scenes to make the very confusing plot of the play make a little more sense. He opens with the court, so we can at least see the characters of Richard’s opening soliloquy. Of course the opening, “Now is the winter of our discontent,” loses a little power if not performed loud and proud on fade in.

The use of shadows is a little obvious. Yes we get it, Richard is a shadowy figure whose only pleasure is to “spy my shadow in the sun and descant on mine own deformity.” The director’s choice is understandable, as is the Edward court brightly lit, Richard court gloomy lit decision.

A particularly good scene is Richard’s coronation. Lady Anne (Claire Bloom) plays torture victim off Richard’s Machiavel creating a gut wrenching balance of hell that is the last York king’s court. The murder of Clarence (Sir John Gielgud) is harsh, hard to watch and perfect in its callousness. Gielgud, another knight, it should be noted, was called the greatest Shakespearean actor of the 20th century; he was in Branagh’s Hamlet and died in 2000. He directed his own version of Hamlet in 1964.

The historical Richard III has recently found his way into the headlines with the discovery of a skeleton thought to be his under a carpark. His historical footprint has been as much outlined by Shakespeare as any scholar, and thus the play remains important.

Olivier’s Richard III is worth the watch. Richard ranks with Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear and Othello as Shakespeare’s finest and most difficult characters. Any bard brawler must appreciate the role, and catch a master knee deep in the guck. Olivier is a master.

Note to Queen Elizabeth II: We bard brawlers are part of the commonwealth and waiting for our knighthoods.

Daniel J. Rowe is c0-creator of the Bard Brawl.DSC_0180

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