Laurence Olivier's Richard III (1955) was the third and last Shakespeare adaptation directed by Olivier, the two previous being Henry V (1944) and Hamlet (1948), the latter which won Olivier both Best Picture and Best Actor at the Oscars. Olivier did not intend Richard III to be his final interpretation of Shakespeare as director. He planned to helm a version of Macbeth with Vivien Leigh (to whom he was then married) but unfortunately, due to Richard III not performing well financially the film never came to fruition. However, Richard III befits a trilogy capper and is perhaps Olivier's crowning achievement as a filmmaker. The film is gorgeously photographed, expertly blends the theatrical and the cinematic, and Olivier's performance is a transformative marvel.
While Richard isn't as complex a villain as Iago or Macbeth he's conceivably Shakespeare's most entertaining creations. Despite his villainous acts Richard is very likeable, largely because he's intelligent and witty. I think we can respect his intelligence. There's also a darkly comic aspect to the proceedings, which makes us laugh even though we know we shouldn't. Vocally, Olivier plays Richard with a high pitched cadence, setting his voice apart from the other characters' graceful voices. Physically, Olivier moves roughly, reminding us of the burden of Richard's hunchback. The performance is theatrical but Olivier understands how close-ups and medium shots allow for more subtlety than a performance on stage
But let's also remember the other tremendous actors who act texture and depth to the film. The role of Lady Anne is difficult since she hates Richard for murdering her husband and father-in-law but being wooed by him. Claire Bloom convincingly plays a Anne as conflicted, not merely falling in love with Richard but harbouring conflicting feelings of lust and hatred.
John Gielguld makes Clarence a vivid and sympathetic character. He conveys the horror of Clarence's nightmare and its lasting effect once awake.
Olivier wanted to cast Orson Welles as Richard's co-conspirator Buckingham but Olivier's friend Ralph Richardson wanted it and he felt he owed it to Richardson. Richardson lends an intelligence and genuine moral compass to his portrayal.
While it's understandable why'd we focus on the performances when walking an adaptation of Shakespeare, it must be said that Richard III is an elegantly well-crafted film this is. Just re-watching it, I was really noticing the camera movement, Olivier's compositions and blocking of scenes. Most notably, he plays out scenes either in one long take or in several long takes. Olivier brilliantly brings us in Richard's first soliloquy ("Now is the winter of our discontent") by moving the camera move through a closed door, revealing Richard in the background beside the throne. It's an unsettling image but oddly inviting since Richard only shares his thoughts with us. Olivier performs the soliloquy in a single take. This reflects the theatrical experience but it's also cinematic due to the camera movement through rooms and the ability for Olivier to move away from and towards the camera.
Olivier begins the film with the final scene of King Henry VI Part III, in which King Edward IV (Cedric Hardwicke, adding warmth to the film) is coronated (the first shot, which is repeated when Richard is crowned, is a crown hanging from a ceiling). This provides context for viewers are new to this play. It also allows for the happiness of the coronation to be subverted as we transition to Richard stating his plan to become King.
Olivier stages the scene where Edward (on his deathbed) learns of his brother Clarence's death in multiple long takes, only cutting on specific moments. The blocking of this scene and its camera movements are all specific and concise. It takes what could be a visually dull scene and makes it dynamic in regards to how its acted and filmed.
What's also visually striking about this film is how colourful it is, as well as Roger K. Furse's extravagant production design. On the Criterion Collection commentary, playwright and stage director Russell Lees says there's an almost surrealistic, storybook quality to the look of the film. He argues Olivier does this to prepare the audience for the heightened quality of Shakespeare's language. The production design and cinematography remind me of an old Disney cartoon, particularly the recurring image of Richard's shadow. The most disquieting instant of this image is when Richard enters Anne's bed chamber. He opens the door and the camera pans down to show the bottom of her dress and his shadow enveloping it.
Some other visuals I love include Richard looking out and through windows, with the deep-focus photography allowing us to seeing what he does. The introduction of Richard is also effective. At first, we only see the back of his head. Richard then turns his head. It appears as if he's looking at us but he's really looking at Buckingham. The aforementioned image of hanging crown is repeated when Richard is crowned and when Richmond becomes King Henry VII. It's a wonderful motif, representing the crown outliving its wearers, a continuously passed down symbol of power. The film begins with one King ushering in a new era of peace, one which doesn't last long. By the end Henry VII is doing the same, ideally an age of peace which lasts longer.
Lees argues we should feel bad for liking Richard and adds that Lord Stanley (Laurence Naismith) is crowning us at the end, symbolizing power belonging to the people in democracy. Moreover, now that we have realized that we all have evil within us, what kind of ruler will we be?
How do we reconcile the pleasure we take in Richard's personality and scheming with the awareness of the pain and suffering he inflicts on others? We have to like Richard for his defeat to have the sobering effect it needs, to understand the inevitable downfall that follows ascension by murder and betrayal. Though Olivier does excise Queen Margaret, whose presence exemplifies the theme of being haunted by the past, the theme is still present, particularly when you consider Richard is literally haunted by ghosts before the final battle. Unfortunately, Olivier removes Richard's soliloquy after being haunted but I believe Olivier trusts the audience to understand Richard's guilt. When Richard dies Olivier has Richard lift his sword up by the blade, another of the film's trademark images. Lees highlights how its the sign of the cross- Olivier gives Richard a "a moment of grace".
Is Richard a tragic figure? He's certainly not a tragic figure like Othello or Hamlet, and on the commentary, former governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company, John Wilders, argues Richard lacks "tragic depth" even though the plot follows the structure of tragedy. I would argue villainy always comes from a very human place. While I don't condone Richard's actions I understand his bitterness at being a hunchback and his desire for power. I also think there's something sorrowful about being so hateful and power-hungry you'd have your own brother murdered. I would put forth that Richard is also a product of his environment, one that is full of violence and betrayal. and unclean hands. Again, this is not to apologize for Richard just to put his actions in a larger context, particularly that of Shakespeare's other History plays, which are full of betrayal
Olivier created something special with this film. While we didn't get another Shakespeare adaptation from him, I'm thankful Olivier concludes his trilogy with a triumphant blend of theatre and cinema, and one of the great screen performances of all time.