I can see we why they relocated this film out of ye olde England, because with it being an adaptation of a Shakespeare play that is directed by the guy who went on to do "Wimbledon" and boasts a cast featuring Ian McKellen, Jim Broadbent, Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith and, of course, the most believable Englishman of all, Robert Downey, Jr. (He's not playing English in this, it's just that he does the accent too darn well), this film is British enough as it is. I think this film's fictionalized 1930s Britain idea is cool and all, but I think that it would have been cooler if they placed this film about a decade foward, set it in World War II and made it the closest thing we're going to get to a film dealing with Magneto's rise to power. Granted, this film came out well before Ian McKellen went Magneto, and by WWII, Magneto wasn't even old enough to be James Bond-looking Michael Fassbender, so it probably wouldn't have been the coolest thing ever, but hey, I'll take what I can get, because I'm already having so much fun thinking about how Iron Man is in a film with Magneto. Wow, it sounds like this film is aging well, and certainly better than the Shakespearean dialogue behind it, because no matter how British this film is, even the Brits had to stop talking like this after a while. Don't get me wrong, the dialect is still cool and all, and I appreciate it, but even when you play it straight-faced and without the irony that Baz Luhrmann gave you more than enough of with "Romeo + Juliet", there's no setting this dialogue in relatively contemporary times without it coming off as kind of cheesy, though that might just be because Richard Loncraine knows cheesy, seeing as how he's also reasonably well know for his very English comedic work. Well, I suppose he makes for a decent choice to direct, not just because his name's Richard, but because, as I said earlier, he's just so blasted British, something that this film is nothing if not. Hey, I'm just glad Lonctraine's here making this film at the end of the day, because he does it quite well, though not well enough for you to forget what he does not so especially well.
As with many Shakespeare adaptations, the film moves along slowly but surely, either keeping too quiet or too meditative upon the dialogue, but being too steady for its own good either way, partially because the dialogue it meditates so much, or rather, too much upon has a certain distance to it. I joked earlier about how Shakespearean dialect comes off as silly in modern-set interpretations, yet all too often, Shakespeare filmmakers make the mistake of overemphasizing the dialect, rather than letting it bond with the substance, thus rendering the final product rather awkward, and this film, while typically no more awkward in its dialect mishandlings than your usual cinematic Shakespeare fare, will occasionally collapse deeper than usual in awkwardness. There is a lengthy extended period not ten minutes into the film that consists of close-to nothing going on, including dialogue, as the film finds itself stuck with nothing to say, thus creating a profoundly uncomfortable distance in the atmosphere, partially because the overlong silent period of nothingness is rather gratuitous, and while the rest of the film rarely, if ever gets to be that awkward with its going restrained by its source material, the film's having its hand tied by Shakespeares original story structure gets to be occasionally more problematic than usual in its translation, not just on the film screen, but in this fictionalized world, which proves to be more impressive than detrimental, yet sometimes gets to be a bit too lost in its own barely developed mythology, thus momentarily bypassing suspension of disbelief and repelling the viewers both from this film's reality and the film itself. Outside of that, the film's translation of such aspects within Shakespeare's original text as histrionics and the titular lead's breaking of the fourth wall through soliloquies to himself and the audience fail to be terribly organic, and when combined with such more consistent faults within the adaptation as the aforementioned overemphasis on the dialect that distances the substance the dialogue should be built around, they exacerbate the film's uncertainty, often convolute the story and sometimes repel audience engagement. Okay, but seriously though, it doesn't really help that the film is often rather slow, as I somewhat underemphatically stated earlier. Okay, now, maybe the film isn't that slow, yet even if it was rather dull, that would remain the least of its worries, as this film's awkward occasions do create a distance that has left many a cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare to collapse as underwhelming, and certainly leaves this film to run the risk of making such a collapse. However, when it comes down to it, the film beats back its faults more than it succumbs to them, compensating for its missteps with more than enough strengths to back up its ambition, particularly as a generally unconventional concept.
This film was one of, if not the first cinematic Shakespeare adaptation to keep highly faithful to its source material, yet relocate in a relatively more contemporary time setting, which is a method that has since been often played up with a degree of irony or self-satire, particularly by the following year's "Romeo + Juliet", as it is a typically dangerous task to heavily play up Shakespeare's original text in a modern setting with a straight face and other forms of uniqueness. This film's fabricated vision of 1930s Britain is, as I said, occasionally off-putting, especially with Shakespeare's dated dialect looming over it, yet on the whole, this film's world and Ian McKellen's and Richard Loncraine's tends to work as both a slickly unique vision with a fascinating mythology and worthy setting for Shakespeare's visions. Of course, the film's unique touches don't end there, as the film also boasts considerable style, with slick set pieces and structure concepts that McKellen and Loncraine place on paper with cleverness and that the art directors and production designers bring to life with just as much cleverness, staging the film's stylistic touches with slick flashiness that makes many a memorably cool moment, yet not at the expense of the style found within the substance, as production and artistry, while striking, has enough restraint in it to still prove supplementary to the atmosphere of the film. For this, much credit goes out to Richard Loncraine's direction, which is, as I said, flawed in its translation of Shakespeare's original text, often overplaying the dialect and other various theatrics to a point that distances it from the substance, yet more often than not, Loncraine holds his own and crafts a Shakespeare adaptation that is mostly as nifty in execution as it is on paper, gracing the film with a consistent lively slickness and theatrical atmosphere that creates a kind of intrigue that may not be able to bypass all of the slowness or adaptation faults, yet generally engages audience investment and brings to life Loncraine's and McKellen's screenplay's and Shakespeare's original text's (Whoo, now those are a lot of possessive nouns) strong characterization and depth that flesh out and unravel this story compellingly. Loncraine is faulty in both construction and execution of his and McKellen's vision, yet hits much more often than not, both in conception and execution, with the other man who carries out these clever visions being, in fact, the other man who concieved them. Sure, everyone within this strong cast of talents holds his or her own, as you would expect, though it's leading man Ian McKellen who delivers the most, maybe not being asked to do a considerable lot, yet still presenting the complex layers, as well as the slick corruption and tainted depths of Shakespeare's iconic Richard, Duke of Gloucester, or as he later becomes, King Richard III character with a subtlety, grace and a profound charisma that captures your investment in him as a compelling lead. Much of the film's worthiness either goes lost or diluted in translation, yet just as much, if not more of the film's worthiness goes brought to life by McKellen, both as co-writer and onscreen carrier, and by Loncraine, both as co-writer and offscreen carrier, both of whom stand strong on their and make for a strong duo, and with the help of fellow onscreen and offscreen talents and artists, our leading duo carry this film through all of its faults and leave it to ultimately come out well worth your time.
Overall, the film hits more than a few slow occasions, yet is most hurt by moments of awkwardness within Richard Loncraine's execution of Shakespeare's original text, often collapsing into the common mistake of overemphasizing Shakespeare's dialect, histrionics and other touches to the point of distancing them from the substance, while also collapsing into a few other much less prominent, yet still perhaps more problematic mistakes as a few occasions in which he messily handles this adaptation's sometimes off-puttingly unconventional setting and structure points, thus leaving the final product to often slip up, yet never fall too far down, going supported by the unique concepts, both of a story and stylistic nature, that do work considerably as fascinating re-imaginings of Shakespeare's original visions and as supplements to the substance, as well as by a consistent level of intrigue that goes generally well established by Richard Loncraine's direction, and brought to life by the talented cast, especially leading man Ian McKellen, whose compelling subtle and complex portrayal of Shakespeare's iconing tragic figure helps in making his and Loncraine's interpretation of "Richard III" a nifty and mostly engagingly unique one, even with its missteps.
3/5 - Good