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Film / Richard III

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Richard III is a 1995 film adaptation of the play by William Shakespeare, directed by Richard Loncraine and starring Ian McKellen. It was based on an acclaimed Royal National Theatre stage production by Richard Eyre that also starred McKellen.

The film (like the stage production before it) updates the setting to 1930s-era England, creating an Alternate History where Richard Gloucester (Ian McKellen) seizes power from his ailing brother Edward IV, changing the country's leadership into a militaristic Fascist regime, with many overtones of Nazi Germany. It is also notable for making Queen Elizabeth and her family American, both as a way to modernize the resistance the English establishment would have to the marriage, and to invoke the controversial relationship between Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson during the historical 1930s.


In addition to McKellen, the cast includes Annette Bening, Nigel Hawthorne, Maggie Smith, Robert Downey Jr., Jim Broadbent, and Kristin Scott Thomas. The movie was a major success with critics and audiences alike. Ian McKellen's screenplay, complete with annotations and guides designed to explain his adaptation process, can be read online. It's an invaluable asset to fans of Shakespeare films.

Tropes relating to this film include:

  • Action Prologue: The movie opens with Richard Gloucester leading a squad of commandos in a Curb-Stomp Battle against King Henry's mansion stronghold. They make a Big Entrance by driving a tank through the wall.
  • Adaptational Attractiveness: Richard's "deformities" are mild enough that they don't stop Ian McKellen from being handsome. On the other hand, given the historical setting's obsession with eugenics and "good blood", it's entirely plausible that everyone else would consider him hideous for his disabilities.
  • Adaptation Expansion:
    • Princess Elizabeth (who doesn't appear at all in the Shakespeare play) and Richmond (who doesn't appear until the final act) are both given expanded roles and additional dialogue in this movie, so as to better incorporate them into the story.
    • Tyrell, who only serves as the executioner of the princes in the original play, becomes Richard's Dragon in the film.
  • Adapted Out: Many smaller characters, such as Queen Margaret and the children of Clarence and Queen Elizabeth are either removed or have their dialogue given to other characters.
  • Adaptational Villainy: Tyrell "only" kills the princes in the original version. In this one, he kills every person that Richard wants dead.
    • Richard is even worse in this adaption than in the original play. In Shakespeare's version he was still outraged over his father and younger brother's death, was the implied victim of bullying due to his deformity and watched his family ruin the realm whilst he was the only one attempting to run things properly. Here, whatever sympathetic motives he had are adapted out and he becomes a full on sociopath who will discard anyone close to him once they have outlived their usefulness. And that's without his upgrade from medieval tyrant into a nazi.
  • Age Lift: Ian McKellen is in his mid-fifties, and Nigel Hawthorne and John Wood, playing his elder brothers, in their mid-sixties. Edward IV was 40 when he died, Richard III was 32, and George, Duke of Clarence never made it past 28.
  • Allohistorical Allusion: Edward IV is apparently this timeline's version of Edward VIII, while his wife Elizabeth and the rest of the Woodvilles are played by Americans, suggesting Wallis Simpson. The Earl of Richmond and Princess Elizabeth rather resemble Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. Maggie Smith, as the Duchess of York (who is combined with Queen Margaret in this movie), is a dead ringer for Queen Mary, Edward VIII's mother.
  • Aside Glance: Richard is washing up after peeing, while delivering his opening monologue, when he notices the camera. For the rest of the movie all of his soliloquies are delivered straight at the audience.
  • Bad Boss: Richard shoots Tyrell in the middle of battle.
  • Bait-and-Switch Comment: Richard's "Now is the winter of our discontent" monologue starts off as a speech praising the victorious King, before a Mood Whiplash Conversation Cut to Richard sneering at the King in the privacy of a urinal.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: Richard jumps off a building at the same time as Richmond shoots to deny him the pleasure of killing him.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: All of Richard's soliloquies (as well as a few asides) are delivered directly to the camera. Also, after shooting Richard, Richmond also begins to glance into the camera and smile, implying he may not be the perfect replacement he has been set up as.
  • Catapult Nightmare: Richard pops up in bed the night before Bosworth, after having a nightmare where he hears the voices of his victims.
  • Chained to a Bed: Earl Rivers is handcuffed to a bed enjoying the attentions of an air hostess, a cigarette and a favourite beverage when he is stabbed to death from below the bed.
  • Conversation Cut: The opening lines of the play, namely Richard's "Now is the winter of our discontent" monologue, are presented as Richard giving a triumphal speech at what appears to be a victory ball being thrown by his brother, Edward IV. Right in the middle of the soliloquy, right before Richard starts talking bitterly about how he doesn't fit in with happy times ("But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks..."), the scene cuts mid-sentence to to him walking through a restroom door and standing in front of a urinal to pee.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: The opening scene, as Richard’s forces take out the Lancaster headquarters at Tewksbury, with Richard personally killing Prince Edward and King Henry.
  • Day of the Jackboot: When Richard takes over.
  • Dieselpunk: The film lives and breathes this trope, both in an elegant and gruff way. Probably the most British-flavoured rendition of the trope ever put on screen. It's not limited to the costumes, vehicles and atmosphere: even the individual architecture that's supposed to be really historical - e.g. the Tower of London - is portrayed by shots of purely period public buildings, often 1930s functionalist structures. Ian McKellen himself referred to the production design of the film as "being rooted in a semi-mythical portrayal of the late interwar UK".
  • Dies Wide Open: How we learn that Anne is dead: a shot of her in bed staring up at the ceiling then shows a spider crawling over her face.
  • Double Tap: Richard’s first on-screen action is to deliver a Mozambique Drill to Edward of Westminster: two shots to the chest, one to the head.
  • Dying Moment of Awesome: Richard's Disney Villain Death, accompanied by "I'm Sittin' On Top of the World" by Al Jolson.
  • Dying Smirk: The villainous King Richard falls into a gulf of flames with a huge grin, as "I'm Sitting on Top of the World" plays.
  • Everybody Smokes: As befitting the 1930s setting, nearly all of the characters are seen smoking at all times.
  • Evil-Detecting Dog: During his villain monologue Richard complains that dogs bark at him whenever he's nearby. Well what does he expect when he's about to drive a tank through the wall?
  • Face Death with Dignity: When Richard enters King Henry's room to kill him, the latter closes his eyes and utters a prayer before Richard puts a bullet in his head.
  • Gas Mask Mooks: The Action Prologue has Richard leading a squad of commandos wearing gas masks. Of course, this is to allow a Dramatic Unmask of the villain during the opening titles.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: The Movie. Being based off of Richard III (a play that makes a point of vilifying one side of a brutal Grey and Grey Civil War and whitewashing the other) made it inevitable, but the film goes beyond. Rather than turning Richard into a medieval tyrant, he gets turned into a Nazi.
  • Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: Rivers, from below, in bed. It's almost a Shout-Out to Friday the 13th!
  • Karma Houdini: For all the heinous crimes Richard commits, he escapes retribution at the hand of Richmond at the very end of the movie, jumping off the ledge just as Richmond shoots his pistol.
  • Kick the Dog:
    • Tyrell hands Richard a half-apple to feed a boar with Richard pelts it at the animal, hitting it hard enough to squeal.note 
    • Tyrell also kicks George's toy train for no other reason than to be a dick.
  • Large Ham: Richard himself, though it's played with at times and McKellen manages to give him enough gravitas to avoid making him too cartoonish. While he's still the mean-spirited hunching choleric and almost-devilic schemer of Shakespeare's play even in this adaptation, in many scenes he's also very mischievous, pompous and cheeky in an Affably Evil way.
  • A Nazi by Any Other Name / Putting on the Reich: These tropes are both extensively used:
    • Richard and his followers grow increasingly nazi/fascist-like with each of their moves towards greater usurpation of power.
    • Richard's coronation scene was straight out of Triumph of the Will.
    • Quite a bit of the military equipment used by Richard's followers is a nazi-fied version of British gear and weaponry from the era. Cleverly enough, some uniform elements of Richard's faction take inspiration from those of the British Union of Fascists led by Oswald Mosley during the 1930s. And instead of a swastika, the white circle on Richard's flag displays his heraldic boar.
    • Conversely the Earl of Richmond's army resembles that of the British army during World War II. His preparation for the Battle of Bosworth Field appear similar to those prior to the D-Day landings. In addition his costume looks influenced by the appearance of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation:
    • Richard's most famous line is given a particularly clever twist to fit the Setting Update. Rather than being knocked off his horse and calling for another, he's in a jeep that gets its wheels stuck, causing him to lament not being on a horse that could escape the situation.
    • In the play, Elizabeth's brother Rivers is an Earl (a title of nobility; the equivalent of a Count). As that wouldn't work with the family changed into Americans, he is here turned into a wealthy playboy... named Earl Rivers.
  • Product Placement: Richard is often seen smoking "Abdulla" non-nicotine herbal cigarettes, which hadn't been made for decades. Yes, they are the real deal, they got the last five or six packs in existence.
  • Scenery Porn: Both the sets and the costumes received Oscar nominations.
  • Setting Update: To the 1930s United Kingdom, with the spectre of fascism looming over Europe at the time paralleled with Richard's unscrupulous rise to power.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: The movie ends with a grinning Richard III plunging to his death to Jolson's "Sitting On Top of the World".
  • Spiritual Successor: Just like this movie adapted Richard III to a 1930's Britain and made the story a metaphor for the rise of Fascism, the 2010 Macbeth adaptation by Rupert Goold adapts Macbeth to a 1960s-ish Britain and frames the story on the rise of the Soviets.
  • Thunder = Downpour: As Clarence, getting a break in the yard of the Tower of London, talks about his nightmare where he drowned, a rumble of thunder is immediately followed by pouring rain.
  • Undying Loyalty: Ratcliffe always has Richard's back in this adaption from begining to end, being his faithful servant and right hand man despite his horrible actions, and also making an attempt to comfort Richard during his Villainous Breakdown. He even uses his last breath to implore Richard to escape to safety. Richard repays him by abandoning him to his death on the field.
  • Vader Breath: McKellen breathing through a gas mask in the opening scene. According to McKellen, this was intended to invoke the rhythm of Iambic Pentameter.
  • Visual Pun: Due to the setting update the King's 'train' (his retinue of attendants) becomes a railway train.
  • Vorpal Pillow: Tyrell does this trope one further and actually dispatches the princes with a silk sheet.


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