Ian McKellan transplants the most unabashed of Shakespeare villains to the twentieth century, lending it an altogether unexpected immediacy and magnifying the impact. The action takes place in the second quarter of the last century, and although the movie is a deliberate cocktail of anachronisms, in flavour it combines into a slightly parodied presentation of the worst nightmares we have known. What is retained is the language and lines of the original, which combine with the modern setting to give a bizarre touch to the story, which ultimately becomes a stylised commentary on recent modern times, with specific focus on the Europe of the thirties. The setting is British, with some American flourishes and many echoes of Europe. The characters, the British aristocrats identical to the original play, don military uniforms or business suits, and tanks and aeroplanes substitute for the horses and swords. When Richard shouts, "My kingdom for a horse !", ongoing is a battle of armored carriers.
The cinematic element dominates over the drama and the movie goes much beyond what the bard could have said or conceived of. The film uses parts of the Shakespearean script as an element of a surreal recreation of the megalomania that characterizes our times. Everything is larger as twentieth century evil dwarfs the medieval conception. This is an "adult" movie compared to Olivier's, which is more or less a faithful photostat of what the audience at the Globe may have seen. Olivier's Richard is almost kiddish in comparison to what McKellan's is capable of. This is truly a state of the art Richard III complete with nuclear teeth. After all this is 1995. This is a Richard who means business, more than the narcissistic hunchback we are familiar with. It has more the flavor of Cabaret (1972) and Salo (1979).