Who better to play the Bard’s most accomplished performer and manipulator than the most accomplished of all English actors? Donning a doozy of a puttied schnoz, a slightly exaggerated limp, and a boyish, midnight-black wig, Sir Laurence Olivier feels more at home in the eponymous role of his own adaptation of Richard III than he does in any of his other storied roles, holding and releasing the succulent prose with unerring confidence and clarity. The grandest of all sociopathic kings, Olivier’s Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, schemes and slaughters his way to inevitably take the throne and rule over the whole of England, here a prime plot of Shepperton Studios that Olivier designed with a bold sense of color and stillness, creating the most fully captivating film adaptation of Shakespeare this side of Orson Welles’s Othello.
By removing the centric character of Margaret from the Bard’s classic, Olivier essentially strips the text of context. The final play in a series of four about the War of the Roses, the conflict for the crown waged between the Houses of York and Lancaster, Richard III originally begins as if one were returning to a particularly aggressive pit of snakes, preparing for the royal python to make his final moves toward an eternal crown. King Edward IV (Cedric Hardwicke) only has the crown because he connived, with Richard III, to overthrow King Henry VI’s throne, depicted in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part III. Though he remains corrupt in Olivier’s adjustments, his naiveté and trust of his brother Richard make him seem like an innocent, though the blood has barely dried on his contested seat.
King Edward’s aloofness and sudden death opens the door for Richard to machinate his ascension, jailing and killing off several major members of the House of York on the way, just to drive others to suicide. Until meeting his fate in the Battle of Bosworth Field against the Earl of Richmond (Stanley Baker), Richard III is perhaps as darkly comic a villain as Shakespeare ever designed, and Olivier’s diabolical, utterly dynamic performance makes him equally seductive (one can see traces of Olivier’s intoxicatingly sophisticated villainy in Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter). The set is stagey but plainly and openly so, and it certainly doesn’t limit Olivier’s lithe, even sinister use of the camera to pull our eyes into the murderous plan as easily as Shakespeare has pulled in our ears.
Of course, anyone who says the power of Richard III isn’t dependent on Olivier’s tremendous turn is openly courting contrariness (and not-unreasonable derision), but this isn’t to say that he alone makes the film so thoroughly compelling in vision and narrative. Olivier’s camera lures the audience into the pit in collusion with Olivier’s performance, sneakily gliding around into and outside of conversations mounting a myriad of conspiracies. And the supporting cast certainly doesn’t let Olivier have the spotlight easily, as his abilities seem galvanized when in duet with the talents of Sir John Gielgud’s George, Duke of Clarence, Claire Bloom’s Lady Anne, and Sir Ralph Richardson’s Duke of Buckingham. It would all make for sensational theater no matter what, but Olivier, in collaboration with Peeping Tom DP Otto Heller, conducts his camera to tease out our willing demons, in effect finding a truly new way to witness Shakespeare’s masterpiece of giddy, blood-flecked duplicity.
It’s all about the colors, and the Criterion Collection’s oft-elevated standards for bringing out clear, crisp pigments are easily met with this fantastic video transfer. From the dark reds of Richard’s wardrobe to the onslaught of primary colors offered at the opening crowning of King Edward IV, the colors pop even as the film displays a healthy level of grain. Detail and clarity is great, especially in the clothing and the Spain-shot climactic Battle of Bosworth Field. If you really keep an eye out, there are faint, surpassingly fleeting remnants of the restoration process, but they’re the furthest thing from easily noticeable or distracting. The audio is mono, but it’s a very clean listen, with the dialogue crisply pronounced over sound effects and William Walton’s forceful score. Short of a theater setting and a pristine print, this is as good as Laurence Olivier’s masterpiece is ever going to look, most likely.
The audio commentary by stage director Russell Lees, who occasionally defers to a separately recorded interview with John Wilders, a former governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company, is an involving, historically dense listen. They cover a lot of ground together, giving equal insight into Olivier and William Shakespeare, and providing plenty of detail about the production. The episode of Great Acting with Olivier is revelatory, pouring over his ideas about acting and famous stage roles, including Macbeth and Othello. The restoration demonstration is informative and engagingly hosted by Martin Scorsese, and Amy Taubin’s essay in the booklet offers a personal, smart take on the film, as well as its long-awaited restoration. Stills and trailers are also included.
Laurence Olivier’s venomous take on Richard III ascends from Criterion’s already impressive DVD treatment to Blu-ray with a characteristically stunning A/V transfer and hugely insightful supplements.