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Richard III (1995): The Limited Edition Series Blu-ray Review

Richard III (1995) movie poster Richard III

US Theatrical Release: December 29, 1995 / Running Time: 105 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Richard Loncraine / Writers: William Shakespeare (play); Ian McKellen, Richard Loncraine (screenplay)

Cast: Ian McKellen (Richard III), Annette Bening (Queen Elizabeth, wife of Edward IV), Jim Broadbent (Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham), Robert Downey Jr. (Lord Rivers), Nigel Hawthorne (George, Duke of Clarence), Kristin Scott Thomas (Lady Anne), Maggie Smith (Duchess of York), John Wood (King Edward IV), Jim Carter (Lord William Hastings), Adrian Dunbar (James Tyrell), Edward Hardwicke (Lord Thomas Stanley), Tim McInnerny (Sir William Catesby), Bill Patterson (Sir Richard Ratcliffe), Donald Sumpter (Brackenbury), Dominic West (Henry, Earl of Richmond), Kate Steavenson-Payne (Princess Elizabeth)

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Before playing the wizard Gandalf in six movies and the mutant supervillain Magneto in five, Ian McKellen portrayed another iconic figure in Richard III. Based on Richard Eyre's 1992 stage production for the Royal National Theatre,
this 1995 film loosely adapts William Shakespeare's late-16th century historical play about the 15th century English king. Directed by Richard Loncraine, who co-wrote the screenplay with McKellen (who followed the project from the stage), this R-rated drama relocates Shakespeare's play to a fictionalized fascist version of 1930s England.

England's king is under attack by the York family, who want Edward (John Wood) to take the throne. Edward's younger brother is Richard of Gloucester, a monstrous man pulling all the strings.

This being Shakespeare, sooner or later, all the characters wind up dead. Richard needs to be encouraged by his many loyal supporters to assume the throne, which he does, after marrying a young woman (Kristin Scott Thomas) he has widowed.

"Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and kill people once in a while, you could miss it." - Richard III (Ian McKellen)

Richard III is an exercise in theatre. The titular antihero is a narrator of sorts of his own story, repeatedly addressing the camera directly Ferris Bueller-style (showing off a cloudy contact lens McKellen worn on his left eye). The film is full of flourishes like that. Though more seasoned on stage, Loncraine was no novice in film. He had directed a number of minor British movies in the 1970s and '80s, all of them generally forgotten today despite possessing some degree of star power (e.g. Sting, Michael Palin, Mia Farrow).

Loncraine's Richard III is an ornate and ambitious undertaking, but one that is almost impossible to warm to. Maybe it's just me, but Shakespearean verse is difficult to process, even off the mouths of the consummate professionals this cast is full of. Neither the classically trained British performers (Maggie Smith, Nigel Hawthorne) nor the American movie stars (Robert Downey Jr., Annette Bening) assembled here manage to bring the original text to life in a manner that stirs. There's a lot to take in visually -- the film was nominated for the costume design and art direction Academy Awards -- but it doesn't really complement a narrative of murder plots and treachery that fails to resonate dramatically.

Richard III performed modestly in American theaters, where it was released at the end of 1995. It ended up grossing $2.7 million from a peak theater count of 130. The film did not do much to either advance or stall the careers of the actors, many of whom (including Scott Thomas, Broadbent, and Downey) were poised for bigger and better things.

After Richard III (Ian McKellen) has her husband killed, Lady Anne (Kristin Scott Thomas) becomes his lady in red.

It did, however, give McKellen a boost in his mid-fifties, if largely only because the film was seen and enjoyed by Bryan Singer, who cast the Brit to play a Nazi war criminal hiding in 1980s America in the Stephen King adaptation Apt Pupil and then as Magneto in X-Men, a role that raised his profile, which could only have helped Peter Jackson employ him as Gandalf. Those two roles have kept the now 76-year-old McKellen occupied and highly visible many times over the past fifteen years without undermining his reputation as a serious actor.
McKellen was perhaps already on the cusp of a flourishing international film career, with appearances in such movies as Scandal, Six Degrees of Separation, and, yes, Arnold Schwarzenegger's The Last Action Hero. Still, there was little pointing to him becoming a 21st century global blockbuster staple over the first several decades of a career that began at Cambridge in the late 1950s and moved to England's stages and television cameras shortly thereafter.

Though it was almost universally exalted by critics, you could easily see Richard III being a one-off experience that drove Loncraine back to the stage. Not so! He has remained active in television and film, though to increasingly diminished returns. Since his mainstream mid-Noughties efforts Wimbledon and Firewall underperformed in wide release, Loncraine has struggled to get his latest works in theaters at all, despite featuring the likes of Morgan Freeman, Diane Keaton, and Renιe Zellweger.

Richard III is exactly the kind of catalog movie you could see a studio farming out to another home video label. That is just what's happened, with MGM allowing boutique Twilight Time to bring this United Artists release to Blu-ray Disc in their usual low run of 3,000 units.

Richard III: The Limited Edition Series Blu-ray cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Marketplace Blu-ray Disc Details

2.40:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English), 2.0 DTS-HD MA (Music and Effects Track)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: April 14, 2015
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
List Price: $29.95
Clear Keepcase
Previously released as MGM DVD (March 28, 2000)

VIDEO and AUDIO

Despite its below-the-line acknowledgement, Richard III doesn't wow you visually on Blu-ray the way you hope it will. The 2.40:1 transfer is kind of smoky and not as sharp and defined as you expect a '90s movie in high definition to be. The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio soundtrack is very potent when it wants to be, which is a few times of intense military effects and blaring train whistles. It's pretty crisp and clear otherwise, making it unlikely you'll need to consult the English SDH subtitles unless you're having perfectly understandable trouble wrapping your head around Shakespeare's words.

As on the cover, Richard III (Ian McKellen) smokes a cigarette on the Blu-ray's menu.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Twilight Time has been very good about putting together some bonus features for the movies they have released.

Unfortunately, Richard III never got much on DVD and doesn't get a whole lot more on Blu-ray.

On the video front, we get just two HD trailers: Richard III's original theatrical preview (2:48) and MGM's 90th anniversary highlights reel (2:06).

There is also an isolated music and effects track, a staple of Twilight Time discs. The value of this 2.0 DTS-HD master audio track is modest, since the film is not extensively or memorably scored by Trevor Jones. Still, it is noteworthy that diegetic music has not been adjusted for its treatment, thus sounding fuller on this alternate soundtrack. Perhaps you'll consider it something to sample.

MGM's discontinued 2000 DVD included only the film's trailer and a collectible booklet that was no doubt dropped from more recent pressings. Twilight Time sees that 4-page insert and doubles it with an 8-page companion that is tastefully illustrated and chiefly comprised by yet another thoughtful, substantial, celebratory essay from film historian Julie Kirgo.

It's worth noting that April 2015's wave of Twilight Time Blu-rays has seen the company switch from standard blue keepcases to clear ones of identical size, pushing the company even further into Criterion Collection comparisons they can somewhat withstand.

Par for the course, the menu is a static screen adapted from the cover art. The disc, which savvily includes the company's full catalogue as a navigable gallery, kindly resumes unfinished playback like a DVD.

Richard III (Ian McKellen) shows off his evil eye when an aid tries to pick him off the ground.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

1995's Richard III is a film much easier to appreciate than like. Unless you're very fond of the Shakespeare play being adapted, then Richard Loncraine's admittedly sumptuous production may strike you as hollow and inaccessible. Twilight Time's Blu-ray treats the film to a pretty good feature presentation, but few bonus features of note. Still, it should be easier and less expensive to track down than MGM's long out-of-print DVD.

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Related Reviews:
Ian McKellen: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey • The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug • The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Kristin Scott Thomas: Only God Forgives • The Invisible Woman • Four Weddings and a Funeral • Nowhere Boy
Annette Bening: The Grifters • The Kids Are All Right • Running with Scissors • Girl Most Likely • The Women (2008)
Maggie Smith: Quartet • Sister Act & Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit | Robert Downey Jr.: Chances Are • The Judge • Sherlock Holmes
New: Mr. Turner • Still Alice • Strange Magic | Shakespeare: Coriolanus 10 Things I Hate About You
1990s Tech Oscar Nominees: Enchanted April • Braveheart • Amistad • Titanic • Bram Stoker's Dracula • Dick Tracy

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Reviewed May 28, 2015.



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