Richard III takes place in an alternate history where the British are five hundred years late with their royal wars, but still in the 1940s for technology and rising fascism. The film doesn’t update Shakespeare’s dialogue, so it’s the cast performing while dressed—increasingly—as Nazis. Except they’re British.
Well, not Annette Bening or Robert Downey Jr. Bening and Downey don’t do accents, implying there’s an accent-free United States out there. The people they’re playing in the play (who are people from history) were not American. There wasn’t a United States when the events took place. So I thought there might be some subtext to them being American. Nope. Richard III doesn’t do subtext, but it especially doesn’t do it with Bening and Downey.
Bening is not good, but she tries. Downey’s terrible. It’s unclear how hard he’s trying. He performatively fidgets in the backgrounds occasionally, presumably to keep himself in the movie, since it doesn’t do anything for his character development. Bening tries with the character development.
Doesn’t go anywhere, but again, she does try. And there are hints of better scenes. For example, in the second half of the film, when Ian McKellen is taking over, Bening gets together with the other women for an establishing shot and then a cutaway, but presumably, they’re very upset.
No one in the movie gets a good part except McKellen, but it’s not like Richard doesn’t fail him too. The first act’s dynamite, with McKellen plotting against brothers John Wood and Nigel Hawthorne and forcing the audience to conspire with him. They handle the plays asides with McKellen directly addressing the camera, tickled pink with his plotting. This device almost entirely disappears by the finish, apparently an appropriate adaptation of the source play.
But it’s not a good adaptation of it.
Similarly, no one really thought through the third act’s visual clashes—attempted usurper Dominic West (not good, not too bad) is dressed as a British commando from a WWII movie, complete with beret, off to fight… the British Nazis. Director Loncraine is initially bad at the war action but gets much worse for the finale. Richard III coasts through most of its run time on McKellen, trying to keep ahead of the film being entirely out of steam. It seems like it’ll make it; then comes the battle finish and Loncraine’s terrible work on it.
The film has big visual problems throughout, but Loncraine at least seemed to be trying to do something. Unfortunately, the finish is a smorgasbord of thoughtless bad.
Other than McKellen, who’s great when the film lets him be, the best performances are Kristin Scott Thomas (who should’ve had Bening’s part for sure) and Maggie Smith. Smith’s got about three scenes and seven lines. Scott Thomas has about double. Nowhere near enough for either.
Jim Broadbent plays McKellen’s chief sidekick and is relatively bland and obvious. It should be a better performance. There are excellent supporting players like Wood and Hawthorne, but also Jim Carter, Bill Paterson, Tim McInnerny, and Edward Hardwicke. All the actors are game (well, not Downey); it’s just Loncraine and company doesn’t put it together.
Peter Biziou’s photography is okay. Not the occasional composite shots. But Paul Green’s editing is jerky, and then Trevor Jones’s smooth jazz score is a (bad) choice.
Also, real quick—they reuse the same slamming door sound for about three minutes straight, regardless of door, and I’m wondering if it sounds so familiar because it’s from DOOM or something. DOORSLAM.WAV.
Richard III’s a slightly interesting but quickly pointless staging of the play. It’s never stagy, I suppose, but whatever they do instead doesn’t work either. McKellen’s first-act performance is singular, though. The rest is okay to good, but he has a unique first act.