film: Olivier: Richard III (1955)

Olivier’s Richard III assumes great independence of the text, including, though I haven’t checked for sure, lines from Henry VI part 3 as the introduction (as I seem to recall the play ending on a generally optimistic note, York now holding the throne, and the audience privy to Richard’s ill intentions). But these are changes I can bear, and agree with, better than opening the play with Richard’s “now is the winter…” because we are shown the circumstances we are to deal with, not left with the implications of some text thrown carefully on screen, or with assumptions from our poor memories. The shots are generally lengthy, the characters, the expressions careful, slight, realistic. And Richard is not so ugly that we believe him a monster, so that we don’t take the text too literally, not too naturalistic–as I’ve been criticized for doing–but he is a man, and prone to poetic exaggeration.

Olivier divides the scene of wooing Lady Anne in two. When it begins, he comes on screen yelling, pulls his sword, not at all like McKellen’s Richard who enters suave, respectful of the dead, though smoothly cunning. This Richard enters offensively, and one thinks “well, he’ll never woo Anne in this fashion, it’s impossible he’ll interrupt the procession and then get her into bed two minutes after.” Well, he doesn’t. And that’s the brilliant bit. Now he says the “I’ll have her, but I won’t keep her long” and we wonder what’s he planning? He follows this by getting Clarence incarcerated, and only afterwards do we see Lady Anne alone and mourning, her husband’s body now interned within his tomb, so that the body is no longer something to poke at and remind us of Richard’s cruelties. Now that the scene is peaceful, Richard enters quietly, and you can see, it’s almost too much to bear, it’s so subtle, it’s so sexy, Anne falls for Richard. Now, never in my mind has this been the case, I always thought of Richard as sort of backing Anne quite in the corner, quietly working that she’ll either marry him or get used to not living much the courtly lifestyle anymore. I assumed. “To take is not to give” always settled my mind as to her opinions, that she has but one direction to face. No, she falls enraptured here, she speaks her angry words in sweet whispers, while Richard draws kisses out of her, but refuses to accept them, until finally she ends the scene with her own passionate advance, and then into the bedchamber, finis finis! Whether purists find this purely offensive, I do not know, and generally I find such changes in rather poor taste, but this, perhaps only in the medium of film, works very well for me.

What a great relief, to see Shakespeare being acted by people who understand subtlety, who recognize that the camera is focused on their smallest of features, that we are not watching ants through spyglasses. McKellen does a fine job, though a bit flamboyantly, but not over the top–though most of the rest of his cast acts like teenagers in a school performance.

20 April 07

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