Bard therapy

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RICHARD III Richard Loncraine (15)

THE BIRDCAGE Mike Nichols (15)

It's a dirty job but someone's got to do it. Adapting Shakespeare for the screen, that is - beating the text into a form fit to be rendered by camera, displaying the impudence necessary to annihilate the prejudice languishing in millions of ex-fourth formers traumatised by that first, fatally muddled flirtation with iambic pentameter. When you usher Shakespeare into the multiplexes, you challenge your audience's upbringing. His work can be like Buddhism or aerobics or abseiling - many people lug behind them their own insurmountable reason for why they never quite hit it off. The true body-count of the casualties of literature, those wounded by a tyrannical classics master or driven to the brink of switching courses by a groovy local theatre group, may never be known.

But therapy has arrived. Many of those injured will find solace in the explosive new version of Richard III. Dragged into 1930s England, and utilising actors (Robert Downey Jr, Annette Bening, Jim Broadbent) who are almost as incongruous as the locations (Battersea Power Station, Brighton Pavilion), Richard Loncraine's film is more concerned with visuals than verse. Its centre is transparently hollow, but it never stops long enough for that to bother you. It's evidently aimed at those reeling from a Bad Bard Experience - it has nothing to entice those already familiar with the play, no radical new reading of this famously inflexible work. And despite the grandiose images, the paltry emotions have been shrunk even further, and the historical context and relevance of the piece scythed away along with over half the text - it's been popped into a hot wash, and come out three sizes too small.

And still I'm not convinced that any of this really matters. The film has other objectives, and it crashes, bangs and wallops with the best of them. You'll find that the chaos of Ian McKellen's screenplay is altogether more inspiring than Kenneth Branagh's efficient but bloodless films of Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing. The most illuminating ventures into Shakespeare are often those which end up being sabotaged by their own ambition; the ones that take the chances - Welles's brooding Macbeth, or My Own Private Idaho, which had great ungainly chunks of Henry IV shoehorned into it. McKellen's adaptation is frequently as crude and inchoate as those films, but it also shares their recklessness, and that's very hard to resist.

The opening scene is an unequivocal statement of intent: a tank bulldozes its way into a military HQ, drawing a fog of dust and rubble across the screen, through which Richard of Gloucester (Ian McKellen) strides. An asthmatic Darth Vader wheeze announces his malignant presence before we glimpse the piggy eyes behind the gas-masked face. Subtlety doesn't enter into it. Sheer brute force does. The text condemns Richard's fascist bent, but he's an enticing demon, and the movie draws its intoxicating energy directly from him, creating a pungent paradox.

McKellen's playing is real trashy fun, like Malcolm McDowell in The Passage, and Gregory Peck in The Boys from Brazil; during a rally scene with Nazi echoes, you expect him to burst into "Springtime for Hitler". McKellen the writer pares, but McKellen the actor dares, exaggerating beyond the call of repertory and creating an inflated, monstrous caricature that provides an egg-shell sanctuary for this paranoid megalomaniac.

McKellen and Loncraine keep reminding us just how much of Richard's life is rooted in performance, but their style is so tart that the reiteration doesn't grate. I particularly liked the way McKellen casually notices us watching his reflection in the bathroom mirror - his little twitch of the eyebrow seems to say, 'Oh, it's you,' and eases him gently into some straight-to-camera delivery. Later, when he jigs on a hospital stairwell after wooing Lady Anne (Kristin Scott-Thomas), whose husband he has murdered, he half-sings his soliloquy like a Cockney vaudevillian, before punching the air in a victorious disco dance move. The shot of McKellen and Broadbent (nervously jovial as Buckingham) framed in the mirror of a theatre dressing- room as they plan their little facade would be simply too much in any other film. But not this one. Over the top never feels far enough.

Loncraine is quite a gutsy director, and even in those rusty films The Missionary and Brimstone and Treacle, he brought an undercurrent of snarling fury - he made you laugh and gasp with his disregard for etiquette, like Boudu with a movie camera. He's ideal for Richard III because he doesn't spend any time fretting about the play's lack of depth - he just keeps lunging at us, and the picture rolls on, as vicious and graceless as the tank that set it all in motion.

The risks don't always pay off. The final battle scene is meant to be messy, but it's also badly paced. And though the nightmarish shot imagining McKellen as a growling boar-man is disturbing, it's also superfluous - his grotesque hammerhead-shark face, bisected by a severe pencil-moustache, is troubling enough without added prosthetics. But that's the point of risks - the thrill you get when you're wobbling on the high-wire. Loncraine and McKellen have made a brash, absorbing and sometimes foolhardy assault on Shakespeare, and though it doesn't illuminate or linger, you come to value it on its own terms. It's full of sound and fury, signifying - well, not exactly nothing, just visceral, electrifying entertainment. Isn't that enough?

Now towel yourself down and prepare for something completely ... ineffectual. In The Birdcage, Robin Williams plays Armand, a gay nightclub owner whose son is bringing his fiancee's parents (Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest) over for dinner. First problem: they're rabid right-wingers. Second problem: Armand's live-in lover, the impossibly camp Albert (Nathan Lane). So - how to convince the bigots that they're surrendering their daughter to a normal, loving household? Mike Nichols's remake of the 1978 French comedy La Cage aux Folles is a flashback to a time when, unless you got off on Warhol or Kenneth Anger, you had to like this kind of garbage or lump it. The final shot is fairly pithy - two clans, gay and straight, gawping at each other from their pews, separated only by an aisle. But you have to endure a near-humourless two hours, and the sight of Hackman made up like Barbara Bush, to get there. Life's just too short for such trifles.

All films are on general release from tomorrow