RICHARD III: CRITERION COLLECTIONCriterion // 1955 // 158 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // March 30th, 2004
"Now is the winter of our discontent..."Opening Statement
Fans of the Bard, Olivier, and/or the great works of film on disc will want to own this DVD immediately. Criterion does such a stupendous job with this package that it acts not only as a wonderful representation of Olivier's vision, but as a cinematic artifact to the film and its legacy as well. From the copious extras to the marvelous visual splendor, Richard III is a masterpiece of digital craftsmanship. Beginning with the stunningly gorgeous 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen image, your eyes won't believe the paranormal radiance they are witnessing. The colors are crisp and vibrant with only a few minor moments of fading or loss of depth. The shadows are black and intense, and the overall transfer glimmers with opulence and wealth. Sonically, the Dolby Digital Mono preserves the passion in Sir William Walton's bombastic, beautiful score without ever giving way to tinniness or distortion. The all-important dialogue is kept pristine and pronounced so that every bit of Shakespeare's verbal poetry can be enjoyed intact. If this were all that Criterion did, they'd be championed for their safeguarding of one of the great works of film and literature.
But they continue on, offering a full-blown analytical commentary of the film itself and a wealth of riches on a second, supplemental disc. Looking to this second DVD for extra offerings, we are privy to a series of spectacular special events. First is a near-hour-long interview with Olivier by famous British theater critic Kenneth Tynan for a show called Great Acting. Filmed in black and white and encompassing Olivier's career until 1966, it's a wonderful walk through this gifted man's myth and mystery. Olivier is open and honest, discussing at length his preparation for Hamlet and Henry V and why he was initially reluctant about filming Richard. He also makes the startling statement that his performance in the film (Richard III) is based partly on an old English comic, but mostly on that staple of Mother Goose mayhem, the "big bad wolf." The comments about "Othello" and race are also illuminating, as are the clips shown throughout. Elsewhere on Disc Two is a 12-minute television trailer for the film (obviously used as both publicity and a marketing tool for potential purchasers) that gives you a dry but decent behind-the-scenes look at how the film was created. Interspersed with installments from Olivier's autobiography, the gallery of onset and production stills feels like a read-along look at the making of this magnificent movie, and the original trailer shows how easy it was to sell this film's inner majesty.
But by far the best bonus is the thorough, very detailed, and well-reasoned commentary track. A duo affair featuring director Russell Lees with occasional input from John Wilders (former governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company), this is a rich, robust, and extremely detailed discussion and dissection. Lees walks us through almost every aspect of the play and its adaptation to film. He discusses the radical changes Olivier made to the text of the original Shakespeare work, the inclusion of material from the companion pieces of "Richard III" (it was the last installment of an intended quadrilogy about the Houses of York and Lancaster that includes the three-part Henry VI), and the different interpretations the actors bring to the their roles. Wilders, on the other hand, reserves many of his comments for the formal structure of Shakespeare's drama, the use of verse, and the history of Elizabethan theater. There is a lot of scrutiny, debate over themes and visual cues and the historical accuracy of the facts and details presented. There is also much praise for Olivier, both as an actor and a director, and the rest of the cast, too, get their accolades. If you watch the film and still feel a tad flummoxed by the language and the power politics at play, listening to this commentary will smooth out all the rough spots. It will give you the grand appreciation of both Shakespeare's art and Olivier's craft that "Richard III" so richly deserves.Closing Statement
For some, the works of Shakespeare resonate like algebra or trigonometry, the harshest lessons taught inside the most terrible time of life: adolescence. For others, he represents an outdated ideal of theatricality that cannot speak to a modern audience. In the last two decades, Kenneth Branagh has made it a goal to reinvent the Bard for the common man. His versions of Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing (and, to a lesser extent, Love's Labour's Lost) have opened the door for cynical Cineplex audiences to embrace the beauty of these marvelous works in a way that is comfortable while respectful of the text. Baz Luhrmann also updated "Romeo and Juliet" to make it sparkle with a music video flare. But no matter what kind of coating is placed upon it, or strange casting choices thrust into it, for many, Shakespeare is still Shakespeare, that boring old fart fudger of the English language, that procurer of flowery tart drivel that makes their rears ache and their GPAs dive just thinking about it. But there is a real cure for such puerile perceptions, and it is Laurence Olivier's resplendent version of Richard III. As bright as a baby's nursery and as coldly calculating as any flesh-eating psychopath, this is a contemporary story made in the traditional sense, an old-fashioned costume drama dripping with post-modern idealism and bile. Even those who find the Bard a bother can cuddle up to the icy evil of Richard. He is a villain and a hero in every sense of each word. He longs for that which he cannot gain respectfully and achieves his goal through malevolently murderous intent. Everyone loves the bad guy. And none have had more heroic heinousness in their heart than Richard III.The Verdict
Not Guilty! Not Guilty! Not Guilty! Richard III is free to go, as it is a masterpiece of theatrical filmmaking, and Criterion, too, is acquitted. This is a fantastic DVD package.
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(Directed by Laurence Olivier)
By Rob Carson
March 19, 2004
Olivier's other two Shakespeare films — Henry V (1944) and Hamlet (1948) — stand as major landmarks in film history, in Shakespearean history and even in 20th century British history. His third offering, Richard III (1955), is perhaps less of a cultural monument, but like the play itself, it has remained a favourite with audiences, featuring Shakespeare's most charming villain slyly killing a dozen odd family members to place himself on the throne. Here, Olivier takes considerable liberties with Shakespeare's script in order to make it as accessible as possible, and amidst all of his cuts and additions he loses sight of much of the depth of the play. Then again, Olivier's acting method always began by focusing first on superficial appearances (make-up, costume, hair) and only later exploring depth of character, working from the outside inwards. The end product is a very slick production, but one that manages to sell itself mainly by cutting out all of the challenging tangles that Shakespeare had left in its path — a method perhaps inspired by Richard himself. Still, this is a highly enjoyable film, well worth watching. The new Criterion release packages it beautifully, restoring Olivier's final cut with 20 minutes of lost footage and cleaning up the Technicolor and sound nicely. The extras here are outstanding: playwright Russell Lees provides one of the most carefully constructed and informative audio commentaries that I've ever heard, presenting nearly three hours of discussion about English history, Shakespearean dramaturgy, staging techniques, cinematography and a dozen other topics as well. Furthermore, a second disc presents a compelling hour-long BBC interview with Olivier from 1966 by theatre critic Kenneth Tyndale, where they examine the whole of his career, à la Inside the Actors Studio. This is another very impressive addition to the Criterion Collection.