Lawrence Olivier was extremely egotistical. You don’t have to know him personally for this fact to be relevant. All you have to do is watch the movies he’s directed. With Henry V, he’s rarely off screen and when he’s on, he’s always the character with the biggest voice and most fantastic clothing. With Richard III, Olivier downplays his colorful on screen presence into that of the lowlife hunchback that is Richard III. He plays the titular character with menace. The subtly of his characterization in earlier scenes helps set up his later very showy big scenes. He plays Richard with a sleazy lisp, a nerd who’s finally going to get his due. There is a undeniable homosexual subtext between him and Buckingham. In certain scenes, there’s “will they or won’t they” dynamic that plays out, but it never ends up amounting to anything.
As a film, the story kind of turns into a mess. Certain things are left out (for instance, the French storyline about overthrowing England is incredibly murky and underdeveloped in the film) that make the film feel awfully imbalanced after a wonderful first act. Towards the end, the film becomes drearier and drearier because the pace slows to a near stop. It’s a showcase for the talents of Olivier as a actor, not a director. Olivier seems like a theatre director who somehow got a hold of a camera and was forced to make films with it. The majority of his usage of the camera seems forced and uninspired. Everything is meticulously staged. He rarely does anything but extended shots with a few pans. There are some excellent breaks from this mediocre work – in particular, whenever Olivier addresses the camera (Richard breaks the fourth wall), he, as the character, directs the camera towards him and leads it to tell a story. It’s a interesting way to film the breaking of the fourth wall scenes – he’s an actor directing the film and his character is also directing the film – and I’m sad to say that this only happens a few times in the 158 minutes of the film. The rest is rather average for a period piece flick. The set design is refined, but repetitive. They’re simple theatre sets. I do love the colorfully expressionistic and diverse costumes that inhabit the set. Especially Richard’s wardrobe – it definitely matches his closeted homosexual undertones.
The editing is mostly non existent (like the cinematography), except toward the end where Richard’s nightmare commences. There are slow paced films and there are fast paced films – neither method I favor over the other. But both kinds of film have a certain rhythm to them. Richard III is void of that aspect. I doubt there was any thought into pacing the film any differently than the play versions. But once you start cutting scenes/lines from a Shakespeare play for a film adaptation, the editing of the play has to match the editing of the film. I feel that Richard III completely fails with this certain aspect of editing. It’s stilted and boring – only a handful of scenes make me excited to watch this piece of work. The score is only used to add emphasis to important scenes – scenes we could tell were important. The score feels completely forced – Olivier uses it as a crutch for his lack of directorial finesse. Luckily, it’s not just a Olivier show 24/7 (even if the egotistical nature of the play fits Olivier too well). John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, and Claire Boom all do exceptional, award worthy work as the family and “friends” that surround him, all of whom, he eventually has killed. Ralph Richardson’s gleeful Buckingham, Claire Boom’s tragic Lady Anne, and John Gielgud’s sorrowful Clarence – one of the best casts of the 1950s definitely. This piece would be a masterpiece if it was treated like the medium (film) it’s being conveyed on. But the film is ultimately a positive experience all thanks to Olivier’s energetic and confident performance as Richard III. Perhaps the film would have been better if he directed it in character? B-