Film Review – Richard III (1955)

Fair reader, you are going to be so impressed with me. For the first time in weeks, I’ve made it all the way through a Shakespeare film. And you are going to be so glad I did. But I’m getting ahead of myself. So the reason I made it all the way through the film this week is that I didn’t have to watch a Complete Dramatic Works of Shakespeare film. Instead I was treated to the classical acting style of Laurence Olivier. Take a look at the trailer and then on to the review!

So the cast in this is pretty decent although the only name that’s really stuck around with any sort of reputation is Olivier himself who plays Richard III (of course). In terms of playing Richard, while he has a bad wig (as does every male character in this film almost), Olivier is really too good looking to be playing Richar,d who is deformed. Olivier gives him a limp (which varies in severity over the course of the film) and he holds his left hand in a weird fist but there’s no effort made for the hunchback that you’ll see in other representations of Richard.

The film is in Technicolor and it looks pretty good. The sets are believable as actual castles, although the proximity that’s given between the palace and the Tower seems a little too close to me (as in, I step out this door, cross a tiny courtyard, and look, I’m at the Tower!). However, the real beauty is in the costumes. While the men’s are just fine with the requisite funny hats, it is the women’s gowns, particularly Anne’s, that are really gorgeous. Also I’m a sucker for hats with veils, even when the hats are ridiculously tall like the ones in this film.

Olivier, Richard III

Laurence Olivier as Richard III

Now on to the actual content. The film opens with Edward IV’s coronation and there’s some small speechifying before Richard gets to deliver his “Now is the winter of our discontent speech” which provides the historical context necessary but it lacks the drama of that cold opening. Olivier has also edited Richard’s speech adding in content from a later soliloquy in Act I so that it all happens at once. However, the interesting visual motif that recurs throughout the film (besides that of the crown) is shots of Richard’s shadow on the ground. Beware the evils of the shadow. Olivier also delivers all of his soliloquies and asides directly to the camera and he has this sort of smile that makes the viewer an almost co-conspirator in his evils.

The other major change is Richard’s interchange with Anne which has been split into two separate scenes, which makes it a bit more realistic. They’ve changed the corpse in the coffin from that of Anne’s father-in-law to her husband, and it takes two exchanges before Anne agrees to marry Richard. But she comes across as a bit detached verging on catatonic towards the end of the film.

Richard and Anne, Richard III

Anne’s most proactive moment

Given the age of the film, there are some acting moments that made me laugh out loud as there are some weird facial expressions from Olivier (with dramatic music to accompany them). I also chortled when everyone in the room at the news of George’s death all gasped at exactly the same time and exactly the same way. But the biggest laugh came at the end of the film (I swear, I’ll get to it soon).

Unlike the play, all of the murders happen on camera (except Anne’s). Sadly the ghosts suffer from the lack of creepiness that comes with 1950s special effects. Of course, the weird stage whispers the actors use aren’t particularly terrifying either. However, while final battle scenes are filmed in the real outdoors, California makes a very poor England.

Now the ending deserves a paragraph all its own. The battle lacks a certain epicness one could hope for. And the armour Olivier is wearing is highly ridiculous. But it is Richard’s death scene that truly takes the cake. It really makes the 2 1/2 hours all worth while because this may just be THE most over the top death scene ever committed to film. Take a look for yourself (if you’re really interested you can go back about a minute to hear Olivier deliver my favourite line from the play, “A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!). Amazing, no?

Laurence Olivier, Richard III

Hello ridiculous death scene

So final verdict on this one is that once again, Richard doesn’t come across as evil as I would have hoped. Really, I was hoping he’d be more Moriarty-esque (and if you have not watched BBC’s Sherlock, go do that right now). Instead, despite the hideous things he does, he comes across as just mildly evil.

Next week will be our final English history play (huzzah!) with Henry VIII. Looking forward to some head chopping.

3 thoughts on “Film Review – Richard III (1955)

  1. Melanie says:

    Haven’t read the whole play or seen the movie but the visual I had of ‘my kingdom for a horse’ I sure wasn’t envisioning that scene as is shown in the trailer.

  2. Natasha says:

    This movie is awesome. It’s definitely one of my favorite Shakespeare films. Gotta love Olivier.

  3. Parmandil says:

    The Battle of Bostworth was filmed in Spain.

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