Laurence Olivier Derek Prouse - Essay

Anthony Holden

Derek Prouse

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A shot of the crown of England, held high, opens Laurence Olivier's adaptation of Shakespeare's Richard III …; a close-up of the new king, Edward IV, tense, almost incredulous, and then the crown descends with ambiguous firmness upon his head…. The mood has been instantly and excitingly set, in a brilliant expansion of the play—for this opening scene is actually the last scene of Henry VI, Part Three, and it also makes a highly effective prologue to the introduction of Gloucester that follows. A Gloucester not exaggeratedly repellent, who will assume his full depravity through subtler means than greasepaint as the action unfolds; his first soliloquy (shot with remarkable agility in a single take) blocks in with irresistible authority the character's general outlines—the rasping staccato voice with its hint of hysteria ready to burst through the sarcastic arrogant inflections, the deadly seriousness behind the levity betraying a powerful maladjustment. (p. 144)

In the film, Gloucester's influence is never absent; whether gaudily parading his deformity or slinking like a black spider round a pillar, he relentlessly disseminates his bile. Erupting on a council of nobles his nimble wit and apparent playfulness foxes and disquiets, but when the mask is dropped the private dangerous face beneath can shock and chill…. The cinematic conception of the whole play marks a resounding advance over the laboured Hamlet; character and direction are informed with a thrilling intelligence and grasp, invention is always neat and genuinely constructive to mood and situation.

In the second hour one's interest in the complicated intrigue is less consistent; one regrets the meandering structure of the play rather than the handling of the film. Judicious pruning has done its best to thin the treacherous jungle, to emphasise the main line of the action, but there lacks a compelling dramatic balance—evil holds all the cards and we can only wait for ambition to o'erleap itself. Richard's coronation, however, becomes a moment of sardonic triumph. Love and kingship have both been realised, yet resist enjoyment; only from a more and more monstrous flouting of morality can any satisfaction be wrested. (pp. 144-45)

Richard III is not only a very worthy and remarkable achievement but a strong contender for the best Shakespearean film yet made. (p. 145)

Derek Prouse, "Film Reviews: 'Richard III'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1956 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 25, No. 3, Winter, 1955–56, pp. 144-45.