Richard III: Criterion Collection
May 15, 2013
When actor Laurence Olivier unleashed his cinematic adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Richard III in 1955, he was certainly no stranger to the Bard, having acted in several theatrical productions over the years and starred and directed acclaimed film versions of Henry V (1944) and Hamlet (1948). Perhaps burnt out from double duties on these films, Olivier was not interested in doing it again on Richard III. However, producer Alexander Korda managed to coax him back to not only act and direct the film, but produce it as well.
For those not familiar with Shakespeare’s play, Richard III is about Richard (Olivier), the Duke of Gloucester, who cunningly plots to steal the crown of England from his brother, King Edward IV (Hardwicke). It is the latter half of the 15 Century in England at the tail end of the Wars of the Roses that featured rival factions vying for the English crown. It is rather fitting that the first shot of the film be of the crown – the symbol of power in England and the source of conflict in the story.
Not only did Olivier tackle one of Shakespeare’s longest plays, he decided to render it in glorious VistaVision so that the larger than life Richard and his exploits were depicted in glorious color. In a risky act of hubris, the veteran actor makes the film all about the villainous Duke with secondary characters orbiting him. Fortunately, Olivier’s towering presence and ferocious performance warrants the bulk of the film’s screen-time. He has loads of charisma and is so riveting that you can’t take your eyes off him. His take on Richard is a deliciously evil one as he addresses the audience, acting as narrator to his own tale and not above revealing what he plans to do next, thereby making us co-conspirators.
Richard is a cunning sociopath who murders because he wants to be King of England and makes it pretty clear that nothing will stand in his way. He is an out and out villain cum protagonist albeit a witty one. Olivier delivers a tour-de-force performance that is a marvel to watch. It is the choices he makes both as an actor and as a director that results in Richard III being such a fascinating film.
The first disc features an audio commentary by playwright and stage director Russell Lees and former governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company John Wilders. Lees starts off by providing some backstory to Shakespeare’s historical plays, chief among them Richard III. He also includes the historical context in which the story is set. Lees analyzes Olivier’s approach to the role and his direction. Wilders offers analysis of the language of the play and the meaning behind it. This is a very engaging and informative track.
The second disc starts off with an episode of the BBC television series Great Acting with Laurence Olivier discussing his career, including Richard III. He speaks fondly of his beginnings in theater and the influence of his father on pursuing a career as an actor. Olivier talks about what influenced his take on Richard III, including his technique and the choices he made.
Filmmaker Martin Scorsese takes us through a “Restoration Demonstration” of this classic that included a painstaking detailed process involving the entire image of each frame restored using the best surviving elements.
Also included is a gallery of behind-the-scenes and production still that include a set visit by Salvador Dali!
Finally, there is a T.V. trailer and a theatrical trailer.