Anyone who’s read my review of Ran knows that my favorite play by William Shakespeare is King Lear. It’s dark and depressing, and there’s not much in the way of catharsis for the audience. There’s so much scheming and backstabbing; it’s just brilliant, and it was love at first read for me. Another one of Shakespeare’s plays that is as political as King Lear is Richard III which I have somehow managed to never read or see a production of. That is an unfortunate truth that I have come to regret as today I finally watched my first adaptation of Richard III and it was brilliant. It reminded me quite a bit of what would happen if King Lear and A Song of Ice and Fire had a baby where the main character was a completely sociopathic villain. Richard of Gloucester has leaped to the forefront of my favorite Shakespearean roles, and were it not for a slightly campy and over-the-top ending to this radical re-imagining of Shakespeare’s play, 1995’s Richard III could have been nearly as good as Ran.

Set in an alternative history of the 1930s or ’40s where a fascist monarchy controls England, Richard III is Shakespeare’s plays seen through the lens of 20th century horrors. As his brother King Edward slowly succumbs to a terminal illness, Richard of Gloucester (Lord of the Ring‘s Ian McKellan) schemes to usurp the throne. With methodical precision, Richard kills off his family members left and right while securing powerful friends with promises of high rank in his court. Going so far as to have his pre-pubescent nephews locked up in London Tower and eventually murdered, Richard, a hunchback with a paralytic right arm, wipes out all of his rivals that have been left over from the War of the Roses til he ascends to the throne as King Richard III. When his endless grab for power finally causes the rest of the British nobility to declare “enough”, it is up to the Earl of Richmond to lead an army to despose of this evil monarch.

The movie has a fine ensemble cast (and Ian McKellan’s snub for an Oscar nomination is criminal). Annette Bening shines as always as Queen Elizabeth (the wife of Richard’s brother, Edward IV). Robert Downey Jr. gives a nicely flamboyant take on Lord Rivers, another heir to the throne that Richard has murdered in his bed while Lord Rivers is making love. Jim Broadbent is the perfect toadie and the ultimate kiss-ass as the Duke of Buckingham that helps Richard ascend to the throne and does his murderous bidding (until he can’t handle the thought of murdering the young Princes). Maggie Smith, Dominic West (McNulty!), and Jim Carter round out the stellar cast. However, the weight of the film is all on Ian McKellan’s humpbacked shoulders and he carries it like a champion. Richard is basically a complete monster, but Ian McKellan plays him so well that he remains easily the most interesting person on the screen. Whether it’s his asides to the audience reminding us what a bastard he is or the indifferent way he orders the murders of everyone around him, McKellan brings life to a character that would seem far too easy to oversell.

Books and books have been written on Shakespeare’s play (which is edited both in terms of setting as well as content often though most of Shakespeare’s lines remain intact) so I’ll stick to how this fared as a film adaptation. In short, it was completely riveting. For the entirety of the film (except when I was laughing at the almost farcical nature of the film’s end), I was glued to my screen. The film has the color and energy of the jazz age with all of the darkness and depravity of the Third Reich. The film takes the Nazi Germany parallels very seriously and this is essentially what happens when you combine Shakespeare with Nazis and it’s brilliant. Unlike Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, placing the play in a modern setting while still using the play’s original lines didn’t create a silly or annoying aspect of the film. All of the actors were up to the challenge of delivering these iconic lines (“My horse, my horse. My kingdom for a horse!” or “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of york”) without making them feel cheesy or artificial in the film’s context.

My only complaint remains the ending which suddenly transforms this quiet and cerebral film into an action piece that seemed intrusive to the rest of the film’s style. For all fans of Shakespeare, if you’ve managed to miss this little gem, it’s worth your time. Richard of Gloucester has long been one of the most coveted roles for serious actors to portray and it’s very easy to see why. It’s a real shame that I had waited til I was nearly 23 years old to finally see a version of this delightful part of Shakespeare’s body of work because it outshines nearly everything else, and I would love to see a stage play version that was entirely faithful to Shakespeare’s original work. I’m now curious to find out how much this film changed in terms of basic plot (beyond the setting changes) from the original work and which version I would ultimately prefer.

Final Score: A-