Tricky Dick

Oh dear.

Laurence Olivier as Richard III.

Oh dear, oh dear.

I am of course talking about the 1955 film Richard III, directed by Olivier himself. His third and last Shakespearean film as a director, in fact - the two previous ones being Henry V (1944) and Hamlet (1948).

Not only is Olivier's Richard hunchbacked, he's got a withered arm, an embarrasingly gammy leg and a nose next to which Pinocchio would feel positively inadequate. All of which I'd be fairly ready to accept - if it weren't for his voice. Oh dear, his voice, his unfortunate falsetto. The moment he speaks I'm ready to call it quits. Goodbye and good night. His voice is shrill, smarmy, hammy and sounds like he was neutered no more than half an hour ago. And not by a physician but an inept vet. With a dull and rusty farm implement. (Which, of course, would explain a lot.)

I've seen the movie decades ago, in my childhood (I remember the Malmsey butt vividly), but I didn't suspect it was this dreadful, this dismal, this . . . well . . . campy. Isn't Olivier supposed to be one of the foremost Shakespearean actors of the century? A super thespian? Here he seems mostly like a village idiot. There are good moments. At times Olivier quite forgets to act and then he's quite splendid, one believes him and buys his character. But then he remembers who he's supposed to be and lays it on twice as thick. Oh dear.

The problem is that the film is directed by Laurence Olivier. Any other director would have told him to stuff it. Shape up or ship out.

This, to put it kindly, is not movie acting. It may be theatre acting (though I sincerely hope it isn't, in fact I can't believe it could be, not hardly) but it certainly isn't movie acting. Now I must admit that I had my doubts about Olivier's Hamlet (the movie), which I found vastly overrated and full of cheap trickery, but compared to this it was absolutely bloody brilliant. A magnificent work of art. This drivel I have trouble watching five minutes without pausing.

The way Olivier delivers his lines is not only annoying, it's also distracting. Very rarely do I catch what he actually says because all my attention is on his funny delivery or how he snivels and crouches while delivering his lines.

So the problem, really, is this: Olivier is neither a director nor a film director. What he's interested in is his role. And now, for once he can do whatever he pleases. Nobody can say no, however much he hams it. So hams it he does. With a vengeance.

"A horse a horse my kingdom for a horse." Without ghastly pauses or artificial inflections. Which is what the dreadful hams learn to say without too much histrionics in a hospital for hams in Monty Python's Flying Circus. But only when they're cured of their terrible, debilitating affliction.

Ok. I shan't mince words. I'll come right out with it. I don't particularly care for Olivier's Richard III. So there.

Olivier's performance diminishes Richard. His Richard is shallow, a man of mere thin cardboard, without dimensions or any redeeming features at all; just slithery and slimy. He is, in fact, nothing more than cartoon villain. This of course simply won't do. It not only diminishes Richard but diminishes the entire play, reducing it to a pulpy historical sopa opera instead of a historical tragedy.

In order to work the play needs a Richard with a degree of greatness in him, with a touch of nobility even, and above all with humanity. If he's all villain we loose interest in him and the play, or in this case, film. The more human Richard is, the worse his villainy. Because then we can take him seriously - indeed have to - and his villainy becomes real and tangible and meaningful. Instead of just being mildly amusing soap opera with a nasty cardboard baddie performing his wicked antics.

I don't mean we should have a Richard who doesn't take pleasure from his wickedness. We shouldn't. That's part of him. But he shouldn't be ridiculous. His impediments shouldn't be accentuated but rather downplayed. They're the stigmata of his evil, yes, but also in part the reason for his twisted soul. He is like that because he was born different and had to struggle to be accepted. I'd have Richard act as normally as possible because that would be the greatest deception of all. Richard playing a normal man.

I stated that Olivier's Richard certainly isn't movie acting. I may be wrong there. Olivier's Richard, now that I come to think of it, would have been rather terrific in a silent movie.

But when it comes to talkies I infinitely prefer Ian McKellen's Richard. Grotesque? Yes. Human? Absolutely. Credible? Eminently so.

But Olivier's Richard? Off with his head.

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