Looking for Richard

Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard is quite the suprising directoral debut, given its creator’s affection for gritty, intense characters and demanding melodramas. For years Pacino thrived on losing himself in complex characters; by giving up his personality in exchange for the darker sides of his roles, it gave him the fuel to create living, breathing characters that audiences flocked to see. With this, you’d expect him to start off with a gritty drama, like his colleague Robert De Niro’’s directorial debut A Bronx Tale.

So what is he doing making a documentary about Shakespeare’s Richard III?

The fact that Pacino would gravitate to the Shakespearean canon makes perfect sense. The Shakespearean tragedies are chock full of beefy melodramatic possibilities for Pacino to wrestle with; characters boil over with dramatic grandeur, and the darker nature of many of the Bard’s plays form a veritable playground for Pacino to explore. The documentary aspect of the film, however, comes as a pleasant surprise.

Formed out of a collaboration with director/actor Frederic Kimball, Pacino interviews people on the street, academics and many contemporaries (including Sir John Gielgud, Kenneth Branagh, Kevin Kline and James Earl Jones) to try to piece together a portrait of Richard the Third. It’s also a film within a film, with Pacino also performing key scenes from the famous play with a supporting cast of name actors (including Alec Baldwin, Winona Ryder, Aidan Quinn and Kevin Spacey). There’s also a voice-over providing a ‘play-by-play’ (if you’ll pardon the pun) to try and explain just what the hell’s going on.

Richard III may be Shakespeare’s most difficult play to understand, but the format here of showing then telling allows even the easily confused to understand the goings on. Albeit, there’s a regrettable abundance of Pacino hamming it up for the camera in the on-the-street scenes, where Pacino visits many of the old theatres where Shakespeare first unveiled his creations - but on the whole, the film works. It succeeds admirably in not only opening up Shakespeare’s oeuvre to audiences whose last exposure to the Bard was in high school - it also presents Richard III in a traditional manner that stays true to its origins.

The Shakespeare cinematic canon is long and varied, from Lawrence Olivier’s own 1955 Richard III to Kenneth Branagh’s musings and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet. Looking for Richard complements these films by creating an atmosphere of entertaining instruction, one that not only fosters an interest in the Shakespearean world, but one that also elucidates the difficult language and style. If there is any justice, Looking for Richard will soon end up in high schools as required viewing, as it would make the drudgery of learning Shakespeare easier and entertaining.

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