Thursday, April 5, 2007

The Shakespeare Film Series: Whole Lotta Laurence Part III: Richard III

Richard III (1955)

I have been struggling to come up with something intelligent to say about this film. I even had to watch it again to see if I was missing something. It is generally well-liked and judging by the Criterion Collection scale of excellence I mentioned last time, even viewed by some as the best of the three. I frankly don’t see it. It is a mediocre adaptation propped up by a great performance. Unlike the other two films, everything good and bad about Richard begins and ends with Olivier. Though he has perhaps the most star-studded supporting cast of any of his films (John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Claire Bloom), Olivier dominates the film and, for the most part, wastes this talented cast. His did much more with his less well-known casts in the other two films.

The good and the bad of the film can be summed up in the division between Olivier the actor and Olivier the director. As an actor, this is Olivier’s filmic tour-de-force. Freed of the cultural baggage of Hamlet and Henry, he cuts loose here with a classic interpretation of Richard the charming sociopath.

However, the film falls flat because Olivier the director takes a back seat to the actor. Both of his previous films stood out from other Shakespeare adaptations of their time for their visual daring, from the beautifully oversaturated Henry V to the stark black-and-white of Hamlet. The first two films are held together by the tension between Olivier’s theatrical acting style and the self-consciously filmic aspects of his direction. Some of the most memorable moments in those films are not his soliloquies, but wordless shots such the survey of the British camp after the French attack or the long, ominous tracking shot of Ophelia entering the castle before her “flowers” speech. In Richard, he falls into the classic trap of simply capturing a great performance instead of making a great film.

Well, I guess that wraps up the Olivier series. Welles is up next, but that may be awhile, since finding good copies of all three of his Shakespeare films apparently requires the services of Robert Langdon. I will be back next week with some other non-literature stuff, including a new country song of the week and some thoughts on The Office and the NBA.

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