Laurence Olivier, whose Henry V (1944) is the only British film on my list of the one hundred greatest films,* working again in color proves himself astonishing directing another Shakespeare play, Richard III. Now is the anytime of our perfect bliss whenever we revisit it.
It is a film of shadows, beginning with a shadow-action: while attending the coronation of his brother, Edward (actually lifted from another Shakespeare play), Richard of Gloucester (Olivier, brilliant throughout) lowers a crown on his own head, the materialization of his desire, as the actual crown is lowered on his brother’s head, the camera behind Richard so that we see both actions simultaneously. But the film’s principal shadow, which at one point Richard conjures, is Richard’s own: a suggestion that Richard is insubstantial, his materiality absorbed by his drive for the Crown of England, for which he murders everyone, including children, to set himself at the head of the line of succession.
What creative filmmaking! Twisting his neck into the camera, Richard seems to be glancing at us, but with a cut director Olivier reveals that Richard is actually throwing a conspiratorial glance at his cousin, the Duke of Buckingham, inside the coronation chamber. This camera/editing strategy implicates us, as do Richard’s soliloquies, which finds him finding us. Our delight suits Richard’s gleeful manipulativeness (those comparisons between Richard and “Tricky Dick” Nixon don’t quite hold because Nixon never had much fun with his mischief); it also underscores his connection with us, that is to say, our own hidden desire for power. Indeed, when Richard bursts upon Anne and the corpse of her husband (more of Richard’s handiwork), Henry VI’s son, cuffs down a guard and gives him a gratuitous kick, Olivier is making of his character an id-figure—Shakespeare’s inspiration, surely, for Poe’s Hop-Frog, another gleefully vicious hunchbacked cripple in a royal court, and actor Olivier’s direct inspiration for Jean-Louis Barrault’s Opale in Jean Renoir’s Jekyll/Hyde film, The Testament of Dr. Cordelier (1959).
Richard becomes king, but as history turns against him he is divested of wit and joy and degenerates into a pathetic figure on the battlefield (“A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”), his crown (literally) spinning away from him as he writhes on the ground in a shocking and profoundly moving animal death. Now we must confront the intimacy we had felt with his ambition. Now we fully grasp his soliloquies: Richard’s reach across time seeking the validation and exoneration from us that he knows we must ultimately deny him.
Olivier: best actor (BAFTA, Jussi Award); best film (BAFTA, David di Donatello Award, Golden Globe).
* Also on the list, though, is a film from France by another British filmmaker: Peter Watkins’s La Commune (Paris 1871) (2000).
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