Richard Iii

on December 29, 1995 by Jean Oppenheimer
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   Perhaps the best cinematic adaptation of a Shakespeare play ever made (although Kenneth Branagh's "Henry V" runs a close second), "Richard III" updates the action to the 1930s and an ominously fascistic England. The film is a triumph, starting with its clever opening: a teletype machine relaying a message to the opposition's military headquarters that Richard III and his army are approaching.
   Ian McKellen finally has a chance to show onscreen the Bard-interpreting brilliance with which playgoers on both sides of the Pond have been familiar for decades. He receives stellar support from Maggie Smith, Nigel Hawthorne, Kristin Scott-Thomas and other notable Brits. The cast's Americans--Annette Bening as Richard's sister-in-law and Robert Downey Jr. as her brother--try hard but prove embarrassing to watch, so weak are they by comparison. The film's other misstep is a Dennis Potter-esque ending, in which a poorly chosen song, some clowning at the camera and a SFX shot break the mood of all that's gone before.
   Isles director Richard Loncraine masterfully cinematizes the story; no remnants of the stage origins remain, save for the text (faithful to the Bard but abridged) and for the protagonist's habit of addressing the audience directly. The marriage between Tony Burrough's exquisite production design and Peter Bizou's evocative lensing is one made in Hollywood heaven.    Starring Ian McKellen, Maggie Smith, Annette Bening and Jim Broadbent. Directed by Richard Loncraine. Written by Ian McKellen. Produced by Stephen Bayly and Lisa Katselas Pare. A UA release. Rated R for violence and sexuality. Running time: 104 min.
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