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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, John Wood, Nigel Hawthorne, Maggie Smith, Robert Downey, Jr., Jim Broadbent, and Kristen 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 an army regiment in a Curb-Stomp Battle against King Henry's mansion stronghold.
  • 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.
  • 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/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.
  • Bad Boss: Richard shoots Tyrell in the middle of battle.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: The opening scene, as Richardís 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".
  • Double Tap: Richardís 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/Go Out with a Smile/Mood Whiplash: Richard's Disney Villain Death, accompanied by "I'm Sittin' On Top of the World" by Al Jolson.
  • 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 
  • 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, and getting the last five or six packs in existence was a Crowning Moment of Awesome for the props department.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.