“Conscience is a word that cowards use.”
Even with my limited (ie. close to non existent) exposure to the works of William Shakespeare, I still know that Laurence Olivier is one of the modern masters for performing and directing. On stage and screen, he seems to have been the face, the voice and the mastermind behind almost every revered production in the mid 20th century. Which is why when it came to watching a movie adaptation of what seems to be one of the more dense, challenging Shakespeare plays, I made sure the version I watched was a Larry Olivier joint. So, did the modern master of Shakespeare make Richard III any more accessible for a novice like me?
After the English War of the Roses in the 15th century, it’s the coronation of the newly crowned King Edward IV (Cedrick Hardwicke). Everyone in the throne room seems pretty stoked with their new monarch, except for his brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester (Olivier). Born prematurely, with a hunched back and deformed arm, it’s obvious that Richard has resented his brother all of his life. Edward’s new crown only adds to Richard’s jealousy, who plans an elaborate plot to frame their other brother, George, Duke of Clarence (John Gielgud) for a plot against Edward’s life.
With one brother imprisoned, and his kingly brother bed stricken with sickness, Richard’s plan gather’s momentum and quickly bares fruit. As well as infighting within his own family, Richard also plants dissent and suspicion within the royal court. With various dukes and other titled toffs becoming more and more paranoid with each other, Richard’s ascension to the throne becomes seemingly more and more inevitable.
Usually, the most common criticism of any play adapted for the big screen, is that it ends up looking like a play that someone just pointed a camera at. Here, Olivier kind of does that, but he does it in way that somehow makes it more cinematic. Whenever a character (usually Richard) gets a long monologue or soliloquy, Olivier shoots them in one long, continuous, unedited shot. While that may seem like lazy film making, highlighting the staginess of the source material, it actually works to make these monologues and soliloquies more cinematic.
Watching an actor like Olivier expertly deliver minutes upon minutes of the dense dialogue, while perfectly executing the intricate choreography required for the scene to stay interesting within one long, continuous, unedited shot, only makes it all the more impressive. Remembering these words would be hard enough. Delivering them with conviction even harder. Doing that, on top of a precise physical performance goes beyond impressive. It’s the kind of thing that makes the work of Shakespeare mind blowing, even if I rarely understood a word being said.