Laurence Olivier Brings Shakespeare To Life In The Criterion Collection’s “Richard III”
The Criterion Collection is a distribution company that specializes in “important” classic and contemporary films. Through Hulu, many of these films are made available to stream. Once a week, I like to illuminate a Criterion movie — to deepen one’s understanding of filmmaking and film history. This week’s movie: “Richard III” (1955).
Whenever there is a time where someone has to rattle off examples of great acting, the go to actors include: Humphrey Bogart, Marlon Brando, Katherine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman. The usuals. Why? Certainly because of their popularity as a celebrity and the movies they starred in. For film aficionados, these acting greats are the basis for “Movie Acting 101”.
Aside from the big celebrity actors, there are many actors that are heralded for their talents, but whose movies seem to escape memory. I was watching something this past week (I am kicking myself for not remembering what it was), where someone made the comment about another’s acting.
“You are no Laurence Olivier.”
Olivier’s name is one of the names that comes up when providing examples of great acting. Known for his Shakespeare roles on stage and film, Olivier’s talents, I thought, were a given. Having a role in a Shakespeare production is the epitome of good acting. (Of course, Olivier did other films and plays besides Shakespeare. For example, he starred in 1940’s Rebecca, which is the only Alfred Hitchcock film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture).
Noticing that one of Olivier’s Shakespeare films were on Hulu — courtesy of the Criterion Collection — I had to watch and see why Olivier is considered on the best.
Richard III, released in 1955, is Olivier’s third Shakespeare film. Previously, he starred and directed in Henry V and Hamlet — thought to be his best of the three Shakespeare films. Based on Shakespeare’s historical play of the same name, Richard III tells the story of how Richard, Duke of Gloucester (played by Laurence Olivier) ascended to become King of England by way of murder. The story is based on actual events, but, with any re-telling, the facts are embellished to tell a better story.
Yes, this film uses Shakespeare’s language from the original play. That is a turn off for some, as the language can be hard to follow. At 161 minutes, this film may seem like a chore — Shakespeare or not. Sometimes, I would agree with those sentiments. That is a long time to watch a film — let alone a Shakespeare production. However, Richard III can be seen as a different breed of Shakespeare production. For one, the story is fascinating. Seeing Richard plot murders that would make him the King of England is interesting and disturbing.
The main reason why this film works is, you guessed it, the acting/characters. Olivier is tremendous, and I see why many consider him great. His portrayal of Richard leapt off the pages of Shakespeare, succeeding in bringing Richard to life. At times, Richard is cunning and unpleasant, while also being cordial and polite. These different aspects of Richard’s character is captured beautifully by Olivier — who you never want to leave the screen.
Olivier’s soliloquies — his breaking the 4th wall, like in theater — help to connect the audience with Richard’s point of view. He has to sell us his plot, or else we are uninterested. The way Olivier moves around the sets — and how he moves the camera, since he directed — really bring to life scenes where all Olivier does is talk to us.
In this opening soliloquy, Richard lays it all out. We see the true spectrum of Richard the Sociopath. Believing he was born with none of the attributes needed to be king, Richard decides to forcefully take the crown. Richard describes that in his mind, where hope and love are supposed to be, only rage and jealousy exist. At one moment he can be thinking of cold-blooded murder, but at the next feel kind and warm to those around him. This is a sick man. Olivier’s performance moves from a slow, noble beginning to an angered end — illuminating the back and forth nature of Richard’s character.
Watching all the actors in this film is a treat. The way they deliver the Shakespearian dialogue is quite fun to watch. Olivier hired other Shakespearian actors that were just as tremendous as Olivier. They understood the depth and mood of a Shakespeare play; they knew how to bring his stories alive. These noted actors include: Sir Edward Hardwicke as Edward the IV, Sir John Gielgud as George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence and Sir Ralph Richardson as the Duke of Buckingham. Throughout the movie, I was simply in awe just for the fact these actors had to learn these lines.
The story runs into some dull parts, especially toward the end, but the lively production and the acting of Olivier and company is truly remarkable. Richard’s death at the end — while in battle — is hilarious to a more modern audience for its over-the-topness.
However, the attention to detail with Shakespeare’s words are dully noted by any viewer of this film. Olivier and company did one heck of a job.
The film is currently streaming on Hulu.