Friday, July 22, 2011

Richard III (1955)

Laurence Olivier dons the false nose to play
Shakespeare's Richard III.
For most of the twentieth century, no actor was so identified with the Bard of Avon than Laurence Olivier, who received not only a knighthood but also peerage for his work on the English stage. Olivier had the combination of dashing good look that made him perfect for romantic leads along with a truly menacing quality that enabled him to do heavier roles like Hamlet, Othello, and Richard III.

I must confess that the thought of putting one of my favorite heartthrobs of the silver screen in a false nose and hunchback in order to play Shakespeare's most famous villain seemed almost sacrilegious to me, but in the end the allure of Olivier doing Shakespeare proved too strong for me to overcome.

From the moment he utters his "Now is the winter of our discontent," speech in the opening scene, Olivier holds us spellbound with his performance until his inevitable fall on Bosworth Field. The highlights of the performance are probably Richard's aforementioned opening soliloquy, which gave me goosebumps, and actor John Gielgud's pathos-laden rendering of Clarence's dream in the Tower.

Shakespearean purists will note some changes made, such as the courting of Lady Anne broken up in to two separate scenes so as to render it more credible and the elimination of Queen Margaret's vengeance on the House of York. The vast majority of the text, however, remains intact.

Now I must put the spotlight back on Olivier to to speak of his portrayal of the title character. Many scholars rightly feel that Richard is a fairly flat villain: a simple power-monger without any nuances or redeeming qualities. Of course they're essentially correct, so it takes an actor of extraordinary prowess to breathe some life and subtly into him. Most people play Richard as such a slimy character that it's hard to believe anyone listening to him or following him. Olivier, however, imbues just enough dignity and nobility into him for the audience to understand how Lady Anne falls under his hypnotic influence.

Despite all these good points, the film suffers from the same malady as all Shakespearean movie adaptations up to this point, namely that it still feels like a glorified stage play. This is not to say that the sets and costumes aren't lavish, but they're still not realistic enough to suspend disbelief the way you can in a Zeffirelli or Branagh production of Shakespeare. Sadly it took the Brits a lot longer than the Americans to get this right simply because their films did not receive the same funding.

In the end, I give this film a 7.7 out of 10, solid Shakespeare worth watching purely for Olivier's performance.

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