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Richard III (1995)

Richard III (1995)

An inspired Shakespeare update with a terrifying Ian McKellen performance at its center, this is a masterpiece of its own

The Very Best



United Kingdom
Drama, War
Adrian Dunbar, Andy Rashleigh, Annette Bening
104 min


If you liked Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, this will be right up your street.

What it's about

In the royal court of an alternative 1930s England, fascist schemer Richard (Ian McKellen) plots to marry and murder his way onto the throne.

The take

One of Shakespeare’s most indelible works is brought roaring to life in this explosive adaptation. The action is transposed from the 1400s to brutalist 1930s England, with the bloody civil war between the houses of Lancaster and York being waged by tanks and planes instead of cavalry. The switch isn’t merely cosmetic, though: in an inspired move, usurper Richard is reimagined here as the fascist head of an army of Nazi-esque Blackshirts (an analog of real militant far-right leader Oswald Mosley). Ian McKellen, who also co-wrote the screenplay, gives an odious but brilliant performance as the titular Machiavellian schemer who will stop at nothing to seize the crown, even betraying his own blood.

McKellen is joined by a gluttony of acting talent: Maggie Smith plays the King's despairing mother, Annette Bening and Robert Downey Jr. are the unfortunate American queen and her brother, while the likes of Jim Broadbent, Bill Paterson, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Jim Carter fill up the royal court. All the richness of Shakespeare’s original writing is retained, charging the performances and the film around them with a grand sense of drama. Peter Biziou’s ostentatious cinematography is a perfect frame for it all, and helps cement this as much, much more than a piece of filmed theater.

What stands out

McKellen’s performance, which might just be his best. He is evil personified here: a slimy, slick-talking schemer so repulsive you perversely can’t take your eyes off him. When he looks down the barrel of the camera lens to break the fourth wall and confide his true motives in you, you get a chill down your spine. It’s a performance that’s positively dripping in malice, one so unforgettable you might never be able to see Gandalf quite the same again.


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