Richard III (1955)

Richard III (1955), directed by Laurence Olivier.

Traditionally, Shakespeare is all about the words and the acting. Originally, movie versions were more or less filmed stage plays, sometimes with elaborate sets, sometimes more minimalistic. Only in recent decades have we seen more cinematic presentations, where we see more of the story instead of listening to it.

This is still from the earlier era and that is a problem: Richard III is a nightmarish story and the fine fancy dress costuming and traditional stage sets hamper that tone. Maybe in the theater you lose yourself in the performances, but that's harder to do in the movies.

The film does gradually become more realistic, until in the last 25 minutes we get outdoors to the battlefield. The camera work changes radically, becoming oddly geometrical and moving through wide arcs and down radial lanes.

Shakespeare is politically very astute here: the talent for getting power is different from the talent for wielding it. Scrambling is not the same as ruling. Richard is murderously crafty in getting to the throne, but once there he has no talent for keeping it. It's only then we begin to sympathize with him, and he does fight and die bravely. Although: through much of the film he is more dapper and witty than positively villainous, despite all the evil things he does.

Olivier, Gielgud and Ralph Richardson are a powerhouse trio. Also with young Claire Bloom. She had a brief fling with Olivier and said he was "a cold lover".

This is Shakespeare's longest play, written early in his career when he was just coming into his powers. It is part four in a series about the Wars of the Roses.

Although not as intense as the "who wrote Shakespeare?" debates (answer: William Shakespeare of Stratford) there is an active debate on "how bad was Richard, really?": actual villain or unfairly maligned in Tudor propaganda, reinforced by Shakespeare? The Ricardians attempt to improve his reputation. All I know is from Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time, but the front line between the factions moves back and forth as old records continue to come to light.

Criterion Blu-ray, a fine restoration.