In a word association exercise, it would be unexpected for ‘William Shakespeare’ to follow the word ‘Al Pacino’. But nothing about Looking for Richard is what you’d expect from the acting legend’s directorial debut. Rather than being a crime drama of the kind he made his name with, it is instead a fun, playful and deeply personal exploration of the work of Stratford’s famous son.
Pacino, along with writer/actor Frederic Kimball, are on a mission. They both love Shakespeare and want to shake off the fusty reverence that obscures the power of his work. To do this, they select their favourite play: Richard III. To convey this, they break down the text, stage key scenes from the play and interview actors, scholars and New York residents about what the work of the Bard means to them.
Parlaying his success at the time from his [criminally belated] Oscar for Scent of a Woman (a crew baseball cap he amusingly sports at points), Pacino made the film in between his busy 1990s schedule. Eschewing traditional continuity (his Carlito’s Way facial hair making intermittent appearances) and segueing from the play to the behind the scenes action, lends the film a freewheeling vibrancy that does much bring Shakespeare’s work to life.
The abundant passion that Kimball and Pacino both display for the work radiates off the screen. Whether trading badinage whilst visiting Shakespeare’s birthplace only for the fire alarm go off or having an argument about why a scholar’s opinion should be afforded more weight than a mere player, they make for highly informative and entertaining company.
Insights on the power and enduring appeal of Shakespeare’s work abound. Kevin Conway illustrates how Shakespearean verse transforms mundane actions and descriptions into poetry and Kevin Spacey ponders on the eternal appeal of the outsider coming to sort out those established in power narrative (ever more timely with both with the rise of Donald Trump and Spacey’s own Richard III-esque House of Cards chicanery). The most incisive view as to why Shakespeare’s work is often staid when performed comes from a NYC resident interviewed in the opening minutes, have passion and meaning behind it.
There are drawbacks to the docu-drama format, the filmic equivalent of Polonius’ musings ‘Neither a lender nor a borrower be’. As well and as nimbly as the fiction and non-fiction portions of the film are edited together, it’s a shame that the stellar cast assembled- including so-hot-right-then Spacey, Winona Ryder and current Trump impersonator in chief Alec Baldwin, and of course Pacino himself as the infamous hunchback- are not afforded the chance perform the play in its entirety.
Similarly, by only devoting half of the run time to the factual segments means that there are only fleeting contributions from acting knights Sirs Derek Jacobi, Kenneth Branagh and the late John Gielgud as well as James Earl Jones and Kevin Kline who all offer intriguing perspectives how the Bard’s works are performed only to not be heard from again. It is hard not to wonder what a longer documentary approach could have gleaned.
‘Tis a pity that Pacino has only stepped once more into the directorial breach with his Oscar Wilde examination Wilde Salomé/Salomé as the invention and playfulness with format coupled with well rendered action scenes of the closing battle (shot by the crew from Heat fact fans!) suggest he could have made more interesting forays as director.
Though the film’s loose structure and meta commentary on the documentary format may prove wearing for some viewers the film proves to be an enlivening and stimulating examination of Shakespeare. It’s essentially a GCSE English lesson with Al Pacino as your cover teacher, for all the good and ill that entails.
Looking for Richard is out on DVD now.