As radical Shakespeare goes—at least on film—it doesn’t get much more radical than Ian McKellen’s adaptation of Richard III, which was brought to the screen in 1995 by director Richard Loncraine (who has yet to make anything else nearly so good). And yet transposing the play to a 1930s setting and decking it out as a kind of Nazi nightmare not only works, but becomes somehow fitting since we’ve long since learned that the Bard’s vision of Richard as the end-all, be-all monster villain was a bit of a put-up job to suit the ruling class of his day. With that in mind, why not take the concept to its logical conclusion and make him into a much later real monster? What is most surprising about this is just how easily the play lends itself to this treatment. Turning the characters of Shakespeare’s play into 1930s decadents comes off without a hitch. The updates never feel forced and are always handled with surprisingly clever ease. (I defy you not to smile at how “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” neatly fits into this rendition.)
The results are striking, fun and, finally, disturbing. Moving the events forward in time makes them uncomfortably modern and unpleasantly relevant. What accomplishes this last so penetratingly is slowly built up throughout the film. The image—the one that, if anything, is the point of the whole film—is hinted at throughout; yet, it’s this one single image that drives the meaning home, leaving the viewer with the uncomfortable feeling that it’s far too easy to trade one monster for another, and that the destruction of one may in fact be the birth of his successor. All this and a song from Al Jolson, too.