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Now and Then: Olivier and the Bard

Now and Then: Olivier and the Bard

“I can smile, and murder while I smile,” confides that notorious noble, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, “and frame my face to all occasions.” For Laurence Olivier, pronouncing “frame” like “feign,” it’s an auspicious beginning. In Shakespeare’s words, he finds his performer’s credo.

Spoken in the opening moments of “Richard III” (1955), the third in actor/director/adapter Olivier’s cinematic trilogy of Shakespearean works, they are the Bard’s words, and Gloucester’s, too. But they do not in fact appear in “Richard III” — rather, Olivier’s pilfered them from Gloucester’s monologue in Act III of “Henry VI, Part 3.” The lines flow seamlessly from the original text — it was only in searching for an accurate quotation that I discovered the discrepancy — and yet illuminate Richard’s damaged dissembling. Olivier knew, almost preternaturally, that the interest lay in the interpretation, in twisting the page to fit the screen, though only to a point.

This refusal to treat the plays with kid gloves, while remaining steeped in their traditions, is why Olivier’s remains the finest cinematic vision of Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories. “Richard III,” like “Henry V” (1944) and “Hamlet” (1948) before it, is Olivier’s Shakespeare and no one else’s.

Inhabiting the space between Orson Welles’ wild, irreverent takes on “Macbeth” (1948) and “Othello” (1952), and Kenneth Branagh’s turgid, grandiose, “authoritative” adaptations of “Henry V” (1989) and “Hamlet” (1996), Olivier’s relationship with the playwright is a masterly feat of balance. Adding and subtracting as necessary, but ever faithful to the spirit of the original, Olivier makes the plays new without making them over.

Delicately, “Richard III” wends its way into film form without losing sight of the stage. Cutting from shadow to shadow, or from the bloody remnants of a beheading to a washerwoman scrubbing the front step, the film sutures together distinct scenes that might otherwise require a break in the action. But we’re never far from the theater. The painted sets, as though pulled from the Globe, are so sparse as to give you a chill, desolate but for a coffin in a high-ceilinged room or an empty coronation chair.

It’s true that the most inventive adaptations of Shakespeare can thrill us — witness the audacity of Welles’ “voodoo ‘Macbeth'”; the gunslinging and bright color of Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo & Juliet” (1996); the airy charm on display in the trailer for Joss Whedon’s upcoming “Much Ado About Nothing.” But with Shakespeare in particular, and perhaps adaptation in general, the new must coexist comfortably with the old. We want our Bard fresh and yet familiar. 

“Richard III,” on these terms, achieves a powerful brew, and from the famed first monologue (“Now is the winter of our discontent…”) Olivier fuses his performer’s instinct with his director’s intelligence. At the fifteenth-century coronation of Richard’s brother, Edward IV, sumptuous color reigns — the royal blues and crimsons of court standards, rich, velvety capes in navy and plum. Yet Richard is as dark as night, his chin-length, jet-black hair framing a ghostly face and cold eyes. He plots to seize the crown by any means necessary. “I am determined to prove the villain,” he sneers.

As Amy Taubin notes in her liner notes for the film, the explanatory titles acknowledge that the real Richard III — recently unearthed under a Leicester parking lot — was a more complicated figure than the play portrays. But Olivier’s more interested in exploring the roots of evil, and so, as the king’s party departs, we’re left with him in the dim palace hall. In a bravura gambit, he inches closer — hobbling, “deform’d, unfinish’d” — and looks us squarely in the eye. The camera becomes confidant, and we’re suddenly complicit in what’s coming. With cinema Olivier discovers how to sell the myth, which is just what Shakespeare was after. 

“Richard III” is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection.

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