Villains are so rarely allowed to be as twisted and depraved as Ian McKellan's venomous King Richard the Third. It is McKellan who makes this disreputable character come together while keeping his performance leveled just below comedic. Loncraine's screenplay and direction effectively relocate Shakespeare's dialogue and story into a 1930's setting, showing an alternate timeline where a fascist England resided.
Yes, McKellen may be overdoing it at times but that just makes the whole thing more fiendish to watch unfurl. If anything, the problem with this adaptation is not so much its lack of subtlety, there and elsewhere, but its brevity, with little room to breathe between its rapid sequencing of events. Still, the radical re-contextualising of Shakespeare’s manuscript is ever intriguing, and the play’s quintessential Machiavellianism remains clearly evoked.
OK, mainly, some fine performances. McKellen mugs a bit too much, and some silly gimmickry (delivering a major monologue standing at a urinal, for example). The best performances are the least showy, as Maggie Smith wipes up the screen with McKellen when she gives him a chewing out that would have demolished Dick Cheney. McKellen's Richard is severly diminished after that, and he never really recovers.