Looking for Richard (1996)

*. Looking for Richard presents itself as an exercise in taking Shakespeare, specifically Richard III, to “the people in the street.” Many people met there see the language as too difficult and the plays as unrelated to everyday life. Hence the popularity of Shakespeare being translated into “everyday English” and discussions about his continuing “relevance.”
*. I think Looking for Richard addresses these issues in a responsible way, though it ironically does so in the form of a movie that I don’t think anyone outside of Shakespeare’s usual audience will find all that interesting. Put another way, I found it fascinating, but I’m not sure the man or woman on the street would feel the same way about it.
*. Basically what we have here is a documentary look behind-the-scenes at a fictional production of Richard III. It was Al Pacino’s first turn at directing and he shot it over a four-year period, ending up with over 80 hours of footage. A remarkable job of editing then, if nothing else, as it flows seamlessly, as though shot in a couple of months.
*. The politics behind the play Richard III are notoriously complicated, so some of the background material consists of interviews with historians and the like explaining what’s going on in the scenes we see being performed. Just what was “the winter of our discontent”? Now you know. It’s sort of like Coles Notes on video.
*. What I found more interesting though is the discussion behind how the play was going to be presented. For example there’s the letter Edward gets warning him that G of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be. Should the G be changed to C so as not to confuse people who don’t know that the Duke of Clarence’s name is George? Or would that be taking too big a liberty?
*. If there’s a disappointment in this approach it’s in the fact that this sort of discussion only revolves around issues relating to a stage production of the play. There is little to no talk of how to make Richard III into a more engaging or popular sort of movie. I missed that. For example, I really liked the angle of the shot of the soldiers coming downhill to finish Richard off after sticking him with arrows. But to what extent was that a conscious decision, for whatever reason, and how much of it was dictated by the location?
*. Pacino’s brand of Method acting can run very hot or cold, but in his favour I think he managed to pull Shakespeare off very well, both her and playing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice (2004). He does give a good sense of Richard enjoying himself, or Pacino enjoying himself being Richard. This led me to wonder whether this was really Pacino behind the scenes, or if he was still hamming it up for the camera, or if there is a difference. I have a hard time imagining Pacino not being “on.”
*. The cast runs hot and cold too. Winona Ryder, who specialized in being miscast in her career, is hopeless here as Anne. And I say that as a Ryder fan (she should have won an Oscar for her turn in The Age of Innocence). Alec Baldwin is also hopeless as Clarence. Some people should probably avoid Shakespeare.
*. Meanwhile, I know that he’s a fallen star now but I would have liked to have seen more of Kevin Spacey as Buckingham. A good choice for the part, especially as he would go on to play Richard on stage in a Sam Mendes production that ran from 2011 to 2012, and reprised the role in House of Cards. You’d think he’d have some real insights into the part.
*. Another interesting angle I wish they’d developed a bit further has to do with the different attitudes toward Shakespeare taken by British and American actors and producers, informed by snippets of interviews with the likes of Derek Jacobi, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, and Kenneth Branagh. At one point it’s suggested that Brits are less deferential to the Bard, and I think this may be right. Perhaps it’s a comfort thing. I’d note that Pacino originally wanted to just make a film of Richard III but then didn’t think he could compete with Olivier’s 1955 version. But Olivier took some pretty big liberties with the text, as he did with all of his Shakespeare adaptations (especially Hamlet). Ian McKellen would too.
*. All of which underlines the point I began with. I find Looking for Richard to be a real treat, but I doubt it does much to bring Shakespeare to the people. For all its jokiness and backward ball-cap style points, I think it plays better as a master class.

14 thoughts on “Looking for Richard (1996)

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Yes, something like that. They never actually made the movie, but they made a documentary about how they went about making it. Sounds silly, but it’s sort of interesting.


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