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The ultimate effect of Richard III is masterfully effective: This version--which McKellen co-adapted with director Richard Loncraine--has an immediacy not usually associated with the verbal gymnastics of Shakespeare's poetic dialogue.
"The objective was to make a movie just under two hours. That's what our financier wanted," Sir Ian confesses, "but I was happy about that, because I would like it to be a film that didn't just get stuck in art houses. I think it's something that almost anybody of any age could enjoy." By removing many monologues and rearranging scenes, a play of revenge and political venality is transformed into a thinking man's action flick.
At 56, McKellen admits he didn't expect to give his highest-profile performance in what could arguably be called a legitimate action picture, albeit one full of beautiful dialogue and heavy plot. "I certainly didn't expect to be an action hero, but you do have to be physically fit as well as mentally and emotionally agile. I don't think you can get to the heart of Richard unless you realize that he is a man of action. That's how he earns his living, that's how he spends his days, that's what he's made himself good at, and it's admirable because he's conquered his disabilities to do it."
Richard's disabilities include the famous hunchback, but also a severe limp and withered arm. "I took the cue, as I did for everything in the movie, from Shakespeare," Sir Ian states. "When Richard says he came into this world 'scarce half made up,' that's exactly what I did. We split myself down the middle and the right side we made look as good as we could possibly make, and the bad side was various prosthetics--gelatinous materials stuck to my face every morning, and the hump and the limp. It meant that in between takes I was very much myself.
"I've seen enough of my friends cripple themselves for life having played Richard. They get themselves into a position that looks very good in the mirror, but eight times a week over a long period can permanently damage you physically. I was determined that wasn't going to happen to me," he laughs.
McKellen admires Shakespeare's remarkable ability to boil down the essential elements of a character like Richard III so craftily that the story has resonance even today.
Behind a cloud of cigarette smoke, Sir Ian says he likes the comparisons to Oliver Stone's Nixon. "It just underlines what I know to be the case. There are reverberations that are set up when you do a Shakespeare story because he had such a grasp of humanity. Although he wrote Richard III exactly 400 years ago this year, and he was writing a fictionalized version of events that had happened 100 years before that, the characters are believable and the situations seem to have parallel in life over the last four centuries. Shakespeare seems to have anticipated we would be interested in these issues even far after he lived. I hope that even if an audience is laughing and is genuinely entertained by our story that they pause to think what makes up a politician, or makes a man [like Nixon] want to be top dog."
What about the film's overt parallel to Hitler? Is that in keeping with McKellen's thesis?
"Absolutely," says McKellen. "Just as Hitler got voted in as chancellor. Hitler didn't have a coup d'état. Neither does Richard. He engineers the election, as it were, and is persuaded, as Hitler is voted into power. But unlike Hitler, Richard doesn't have a political agenda. He's not really a politician at all. He just needs to be in control."
McKellen makes Shakespeare not only accessible while authentic to Shakespeare's intent, he also makes delivering the lines seem effortless, and shows slight resentment at the unbroken string of accolades that are visited upon his younger, higher-profile compatriot, Kenneth Branagh.
"Not to be unfair or disparaging, but Kenneth Branagh isn't the only actor in the world who can manage to make Shakespeare sound as if he's making it up as he goes along. That's what people have been doing in the theater for a long time."
Thanks to McKellen, new audiences can rediscover the joys of Shakespeare and realize just how powerful a theatrical force good acting of any kind can be.
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