Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Claire Bloom, Cedric Hardwicke, Nicholas Hannen
William Shakespeare (plays, "Richard III" and "Henry VI: Part III"), Colley Cibber (textual alterations), David Garrick (textual alterations for his production of the play)
In Richard III, director, producer, and star Laurence Olivier brings Shakespeare’s masterpiece of Machiavellian villainy to ravishing cinematic life. Olivier is diabolically captivating as Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who, through a series of murderous machinations, steals the crown from his brother Edward. And he surrounds himself with a royal supporting cast, which includes Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, and Claire Bloom. Filmed in VistaVision and Technicolor, Richard III is one of the most visually inspired of all big-screen Bard adaptations.
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1
Runtime: 158 min.
Release Date: 4/23/2013
• Audio Commentary with Playwright/Stage Director Russell Lees and Former Royal Shakespeare Company Governor John Wilders
• 1966 Interview with Laurence Olivier
• Photo Gallery With Excerpts from Laurence Olivier’s Autobiography
• Restoration Demonstration
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Richard III: Criterion Collection [Blu-Ray] (1955)
Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 25, 2013)
Seven years after Hamlet won him Best Actor and Best Picture Oscars, Laurence Olivier returned to the Shakespearean well with 1955’s Richard III. Set in 15th Century England, we arrive at the end of the War of the Roses and its battle for the crown. King Edward IV (Cedric Hardwicke) takes the throne, much to the dismay of Richard, Duke of Gloucester (Olivier) – and also Edward’s younger brother.
Richard boasts his own strong desire to become king, a fierce longing abetted by self-loathing related to his physical deformities. Ambition consumes Richard above all else, and any familial allegiances become meaningless in the face of his all-consuming quest to wear the crown. Thus we follow his path to become Richard III, King of England, which he achieves via much cunning and bloodshed – and which inevitably won’t last.
Should that go into “spoiler alert” territory? Probably not – when you discuss one of the most famous works in the English language, a piece created centuries earlier and based on history, I think it’s okay to say it doesn’t finish well for Richard.
The pleasure in Richard doesn’t come from the desire to find out whether the lead character gets away with all his villainy; it seems inevitable he won’t. We’re more curious to view the process along the way, as we dig into Richard’s ruthless attempts to ascend to the throne.
And that’s where the film works. Richard becomes a mesmerizing character, largely because he’s so unrepentant in his evil. While he winds his devious path, he does so with vivacity and wit. A precursor to modern “charming villains” like Hannibal Lecter, we may object to Richard’s actions but we delight in the execution of his cruelty.
While Olivier’s performance may seem mannered and “stagey” to contemporary audiences, I think he suits the role well. Face it: no matter how hard some may try to “modernize” Shakespeare, those works will always remain part of their period and threaten to put off viewers. Olivier really seemed to master Shakespeare. He gave the Bard’s work the right sense/feel and didn’t attempt any radical reinterpretations.
Even without these changes for the modern viewer, Olivier allows the material to become easily comprehendible. Granted, I’ve had limited exposure to Olivier’s Shakespeare – just Richard III and Hamlet - but those experiences showed that he boasted an ability to remain true enough to the source while he still made the works simple to digest.
That’s no mean feat, as I can’t think of any other adaptations of Shakespeare that drew me in as easily as Olivier’s. Take Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, for instance; while I appreciated that take, I could never invest in it, while I readily embraced Olivier’s version.
When I wrote up Branagh’s Hamlet, I struggled to figure out why I found that film to keep me at a distance while I became involved in Olivier’s. After a screening of Richard III, though, I think I better understand this. Olivier stages matters in such a smooth, concise manner that the language becomes… I don’t want to say incidental, but easier to digest.
Often when I watch Shakespeare, I fight with the dialogue. I can find the situations and characters difficult to interpret just because I battle through the speech; when I must devote most of my viewing time to the simple understanding of the spoken language, I can’t invest in the meaning as well and end up distanced from the material.
Through performances and staging, Olivier eliminates these concerns. As I said, I would never want to disregard Shakespeare’s much-praised dialogue as unnecessary; much of the pleasure here comes from the elegance and inventiveness of the lines.
The viewer should find it much easier to appreciate Shakespeare’s work in Olivier’s interpretation simply because the director stages everything else so well. Again, he makes the situations and characterizations so clear that the lines become less crucial; they embellish but don’t act as our sole method of guidance through the narrative.
I can’t overstate how important that becomes and how much more accessible – and enjoyable – it makes Shakespeare. Olivier’s Richard gives the story a good sense of movement and progress so it never feels like a basic filmed version of a stage production. However, he doesn’t go crazy and deliver theatrics for their own sake. Olivier concentrates on the story and characters at the flick’s core.
Across the board, Richard boasts fine performances, especially in regard to Olivier’s lead. While he can occasionally seem a little “stagey”, he usually manages to tamp down any tendencies toward broadness. Olivier eliminates most signs of hamminess and invests the character with all the guile, intelligence and cold-hearted determination required.
All of these factors add up to a thoroughly enjoyable version of Richard III. Perhaps some would argue that others interpreted Shakespeare better than Olivier, and perhaps some would be correct. All I know is that I’ve never liked Shakespeare as much when placed in other hands; Olivier does the trick for me.
The Disc Grades: Picture A-/ Audio B/ Bonus B
Richard III appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.66:1 on this Blu-Ray Disc. The object of extensive restoration, the film looked great.
Few issues with sharpness materialized. A sliver of softness occasionally popped up in some wider shots, but those elements remained minor. The majority of the movie exhibited good to great definition. Jagged edges and shimmering caused no concerns, and edge haloes also failed to appear. With a nice layer of grain, digital noise reduction remained in check, and print flaws weren’t a concern; the image could flicker a little at times but came free from defects.
Colors were excellent, as the tones came across as quite lively and dynamic throughout the film. This was the kind of flick that could show off the Technicolor, and the transfer did so. Blacks were quite dense, while shadows appeared visible and clear. I felt very pleased with the image, as it provided sumptuous visuals.
While not in the same league as the picture, the monaural soundtrack of Richard III also worked well. Speech seemed reasonably accurate and distinct, with no issues related to intelligibility or edginess.
Music came across as fairly bright and lively, though dynamic range seemed limited given the restrictions of the source. Effects were similarly modest but they showed good clarity and accuracy within the confines of 58-year-old stems. This was a more than adequate auditory presentation for an older movie.
When we move to the set’s extras, we locate an audio commentary with playwright/stage director Russell Lees and former Royal Shakespeare Company Governor John Wilders. Lees delivers a running, screen-specific discussion into which we occasionally get separately-recorded notes from Wilders. We learn about the original play and its adaptation for the screen, elements of history, cast and performances, sets and locations, visual design, thoughts about Shakespeare, and some connected topics.
While Wilders chips in useful tidbits at times, this remains Lees’ baby, and he covers the film’s long running time well. We get a nice look at the original play, its era, and the movie. All of this meshes into an informative chat.
From 1966, an episode of the BBC’s Great Acting runs 47 minutes, 46 seconds. It offers a chat between Laurence Olivier and theater critic Kenneth Tynan. Olivier discusses his youth and path to acting as well as aspects of his career and specifics of some roles. It’s good to hear from Olivier and this develops into a lively, engaging piece.
Next comes a Restoration Demonstration. It goes for eight minutes, 15 seconds and comes hosted by Martin Scorsese. We get a history of the film and its technical elements as well as a discussion of improvements made for the restoration. I usually find these programs to be tedious, but Scorsese helps make it interesting.
A Production Gallery gives us 28 images. We see shots from the film, images from the set and some advertising. These come with panels of text that tell us what we’ll see as well as quotes from Olivier about the movie. All this adds up to a good collection.
In addition to the film’s standard theatrical trailer, we find an unusual TV trailer. It goes for 12 minutes, 42 seconds and is called a “foretaste of the film”. It mostly shows and discusses parts of the movie, but it also delivers some footage from the set. It becomes a nice archival piece.
Finally, we get a 20-page booklet. It provides an essay from film critic Amy Taubin as well as some photos and notes. While not one of Criterion’s best booklets, it adds value.
Although I liked Laurence Olivier’s Oscar-winning take on Hamlet, I felt a little reluctant to view his version of Richard III, as I feared Hamlet would be the exception and not the rule. Happily, I needn’t have worried, as Olivier succeeded once again; he brought us a vivid, involving Richard III with few flaws on display. The Blu-ray boasts excellent visuals, better than average audio and some useful bonus materials. I think it might be time for me to give Olivier’s Henry V a look, as Richard III convinces me he brings Shakespeare to life well.
Viewer Film Ratings: 4 Stars
| Number of Votes: 1