Whether intentional or synchronistical, The Criterion Collection has chosen April 23, 2013, 397 years since William Shakespeare's death according to the Julian calendar, to release the Blu-ray of 'Richard III' (1955), the third of Laurence Olivier's trio of Shakespeare films in which he directed and starred following 'Henry V' (1944) and 'Hamlet' (1948). 'Richard III' tells a fascinating story about human ego and political intrigue.
Olivier begins by offering a bit of background for those not familiar with the play or British history. Graphics reveal that the story "begins in the latter half of the 15th Century in England, at the end of a long period of strife set about by rival factions [the House of Lancaster and the House of York] for the English Crown, known as the Wars of the Roses." The film then opens with the scenes from the end of Shakespeare's 'Henry VI, Part III' at the ceremony where Edward IV (Cedric Hardwicke) becomes the first Yorkist King of England.
Once the festivities have died down, Edward's brother Richard (Olivier) delivers a monologue directly to the camera, a technique the director uses multiple times, about his intention make the crown his own. His anger and jealousy are rooted in his misshapen body that blames on an arrangement between his mother and nature "To shrink mine arm up like a wither'd shrub;/ To make an envious mountain on my back,/ Where sits deformity to mock my body;/ To shape my legs of an unequal size."
Richard's villainy soon reveals itself as he moves forward with his plans. His whispering in Edward's ear gets their brother George (John Gielgud), who is in line for the crown before Richard, jailed in the Tower of London. Yet, before George is locked up, Richard informs George he will work on his release Richard made Lady Anne (Claire Bloom) a widow yet woos her during her husband's burial. She is angered by him, hurls insults and spit at him, yet, is oddly intrigued and falls for his seduction. He intends to dismiss when he no longer has a use for her. He treats everyone in that same manner; allies are unknowingly pawns until they find themselves to be enemies.
Olivier does an impressive job with this adaptation. Though the majority of 'Richard III' is shot in a studio, the blocking of the actors and the movement of the camera create a sense of space that makes it feel larger than a play. The film takes on an epic quality during the final sequences of the battle and leading up to it by being shot on location in Spain.
I'm not sure of the accuracy or the origin of the famous quote "90% of directing is casting" but 'Richard III' certainly supports that position. Olivier's Oscar-nominated performance leads an impressive cast of British actors. From the famous names to the lesser knowns in limited roles, all the actors contribute to the authenticity of the time period.
Olivier's 'Richard III' is a captivating film that demonstrates not only the skills of the cast and crew, but also Shakespeare's talent in combining art and history. It makes for a great introduction into his works.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Richard III' (1955) (#213 in The Criterion Collection) is a 50GB Region A Blu-ray disc in a clear keepcase. The discs boot up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements. Included is a 16-page booklet containing "Red-Blooded Richard," an essay by Amy Taubin.
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at the European aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The liner notes reveal, "In 2012, The Film Foundation completed an extensive digital restoration of the 158-minute cut of the film," three minutes shorter than the run time when it premiered. "This restoration utilized, for the first time, the original VistaVision camera negative, the original YCM separation masters, and footage trimmed from the original negative, to create the longest existing version of the film. All the elements were scanned full-frame in 4K resolution at Cineric, Inc., in New York, on an Oxberry wet gat gate scanner. The color correction was done by Sheri Eisenberg at Colorworks, in Culver City, California, using Baselight 8 color-grading system.
The work by all involved is astounding and appreciated. The vibrant colors are revealed immediately as the opening titles roll and continue right into the crowning ceremony, which showcase even more hues. Blacks are inky throughout. The contrast is strong and there is good shadow delineation.
The image is very clean, showing no evidence of wear or age. There is noticeable film grain, which increases during the location footage. Exquisite detail is evident in the textures of the ornate costumes and metal work. Objects are sharply defined; however, focus does slip on occasion at the source due to both cameras and actors moving as seen during Richard's first monologue. As an offset to that issue, the blocking creates great depth, which is captured. The only other negative is the rare light flicker that occurs.
The audio is available in LPCM 1.0 Mono and "was restored from an original 33 mm monaural optical track print." Like the video, the audio restoration appears free from age and wear. The dialogue, the most important element in a play, is clear throughout, though some of the dubs from the location shoot are noticeably flat. William Walton’s score is subdued in mono, even though it does overwhelm the effects of a crowd cheering in one scene. The dyamanic range is limited, as is the use of bass.
'Richard III' is quite intriguing as Shakespeare makes the villain the lead character of the story, and Laurence Olivier's wonderful performance keeps the audience enthralled. Though the limited audio and supplements may bring down the average score, the quality of the film and the video are the reason I highly recommend this Criterion release.