Richard III Movie Review

Laurence Olivier's Richard III is one of the stagiest versions of Shakespeare you'll find on film, and it's also his least faithful work, chopping and editing the Bard's play willy-nilly. I'm no Shakespeare expert, but even I can spot the hatchet work here. (For the uninitated, Richard III follows the waning days of the War of the Roses, with Richard III (Olivier) taking on big brother Edward (Cedric Hardwicke) in a bid for the throne. Deception, murder, and betrayal rule the day until the outcome is decided.)

The undortunate side effect of the faithfulness is that Richard III has a real Masterpiece Theatre quality that you just can't shake. Olivier plops the camera down at one end of the room and lets scenes take place in wide shots, unmolested. Long scenes are certainly forgivable, but the end result is that this rendition of the story looks far more like a play than a movie. It isn't until the second half of the film when we really get out of the castle, and thank God we do. But unfortunately, even these scenes aren't exactly thrill rides. The landscapes chosen are barren and void of majesty. Sword fights are genteel affairs with no distinguishable choreography. Why ride an army out to battle if you're not going to use them?

Richard III would be Olivier's third and final Shakespeare movie (as director, at least), and it would earn the least amount of industry praise among his films (a sole acting nomination for Olivier himself). If you can get past that wild wig, he's got some of the Bard's most memorable lines to deliver. "My horse, my horse...", "Now is the winter of our discontent...", all the good ones this side of Hamlet. But on the whole, the story is what it is -- straight outta Shakespeare, with its flowery language and rapid-fire dialogue. The few scenes of action are impressive, but they are few and far between. Overall this is an excellent piece of history -- how can you not dig a movie that offers John Gielgud, Claire Bloom, and Ralph Richardson on top of Olivier, however brief their parts are? -- but it's unfortunately dry as burnt toast.

Olivier shoots in Technicolor this time around (vs. black and white in prior outings), but the film isn't notably enriched by it. In fact, Olivier was probably a little uneasy in color; strangely, the film premiered on network TV the same day it opened theatrically.

Now available on DVD from Criterion, the two-disc set includes commentary from a pair of Shakespeare gurus, a lengthy interview with Olivier, and the 12-minute TV commercial for the televised version of the film.


Richard III Rating

" OK "

Rating: NR, 1955


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