Museums in Movies: Richard III


Adapting a Shakespeare play for a modern setting always runs the risk of veering into hamfisted analogies, but when done with creativity and skill it can make you see the Bard’s timeless language in a new light. The 1995 film of Richard III starring Ian McKellen is one such example. The 1930s setting provides dazzling, plus it gives Richard’s tyranny a fascist feel. The cast is a stellar collection of British actors, plus pre-Iron Man Robert Downey Jr. for good measure. Even better, it uses several museums and historic houses as filming locations, showcasing their most dramatic aspects.

Photo © Marcus Leith/Tate

Modernist architecture provides compelling scenery for the political drama. (So compelling, in fact, that the same locations appear in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films.) Most notably, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s 1947 Bankside Power Station serves as a streamlined re-imaging of the Tower of London. Today this building is the home of the Tate Modern. It opened to the public in 2000 after major interior renovations; Richard III probably filmed there just before demolitions began. Another Art Deco industrial site, Battersea Power Station, is the site of Richard’s final battle.


Senate House

The power stations’ striking geometry is mimicked by the bold, clean lines of Richard’s office headquarters, which are set in the Senate House of the University College, London. This 1937 Art Deco tower designed by Charles Holden has its own fraught political legacy, since it was the site of the Ministry of Information offices during World War II. George Orwell modeled the appearance of the Ministry of Truth in 1984 after its aesthetic. The building’s bold, direct style is a perfect match for Richard’s single-minded ambition.

Brighton Pavilion music room.

Modern minimalism is even more compelling in contrast with the ornate style of other settings. The Brighton Pavilion‘s over-the-top orientalism makes some colorful appearances. Look for its music room lotus chandeliers in a shot from King Edward IV’s deathbed. Gothic revival elements fill other royal spaces – some ornate urinals at Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill estate even make a showing.

These luxurious spaces eventually fade from view, though, as the play shifts toward its belligerent conclusion. The certainty of earlier regimes is a distant memory, and Richard’s power proves precarious. He may get to traverse the battlefield in a jeep, but in the end he’s still left crying out for a horse. Modern power is fraught with unpredictability, and its day in the sun is short before it must give way to the next generation and its innovations.


Image sources: Tate Modern, Senate House, Brighton Pavilion.