“It has always been a dream of mine to communicate how I feel about Shakespeare to other people”, Al Pacino says early on in Looking for Richard. Most actors probably feel the same way, and they communicate it through acting. Pacino wanted to do something bigger. Stepping behind the camera, he made his directorial debut with this remarkably ambitious mixture of documentary and drama, an adaptation, an exploration and a deconstruction of Richard III. Reissued by Odyssey Films two decades after it was first released, it feels as timeless and relevant as it ever was.
Pacino’s documentary sections are undeniably heavy on talking heads, but the sheer range of interviewees keeps it from being dull. What the documentary segments achieve most of all is a kind of collapsing of status, a space where anyone from a knighted actor to a child on the street can give their thoughts on Shakespeare, and if it’s interesting or entertaining enough it goes in the film. The result is to break down the thing that even Pacino admits he finds intimidating – Shakespeare’s status as a treasure of English high culture, and the attendant implication that ordinary people, particularly Americans, won’t get this.
But they do get it. Inasmuch as cinema is a populist medium, the history of Shakespeare on screen has been a string of attempts to make the Bard’s work immediate and accessible. Looking for Richard’s key descendant might be the Taviani brothers’ remarkable Caesar Must Die, which follows a group of inmates at a maximum-security Italian prison as they stage Julius Caesar. Pacino doesn’t quite go that far, but it’s worth noting that one of the most passionate appraisals of Shakespeare’s worth comes from an apparently homeless man who says without Shakespeare, we would “speak without feeling”.
Having democratised Richard III, Pacino’s interviewees are free to speak with plenty of feeling about the play’s merits. One brilliantly explains the dramatic purpose of a soliloquy without using the word “soliloquy”, showing how clearly the play’s merits can shine through if we look at it without academic jargon and preconceptions. Others debate whether you need to know the history of the Wars of the Roses to understand the play (unlikely – Richard III’s many strengths do not include historical accuracy), and another questions whether the final act really works.
It’s a cop-out, but for this writer the answer to that last question is simple: it depends how it’s staged. Pacino’s version of the Battle of Bosworth Field is visibly hampered by a low budget but certainly deeply felt and unusual. It’s hard not to think he was filming it with the concerns raised elsewhere in the film about the scene’s quality in his mind. Perhaps even more so than the Shakespearian analysis, the main pleasure of Looking for Richard is the insight it gives you into the creative process, all the fidgety little issues that need to be addressed so that the viewer will hopefully not notice them at all.
Pacino, we learn, likes to pace when he thinks: he rejects one copy of the Complete Works for being too heavy to walk around with. More substantially, we see him discuss characterisation with Alec Baldwin and Kevin Spacey, and play out several very different versions of the scene where Richard seduces Winona Ryder’s Lady Anne. Although the acted scenes are handsomely lit and well performed the camerawork remains handheld, reminding us that these scenes are there to serve the documentary’s line of inquiry.
There are some stabs at uncovering contemporary relevance in Richard III; working in an election year, it is suggested that Richmond represents the dream of kicking out the old, corrupt order. Perhaps inevitably with Pacino at the helm, gangsters are mentioned as another analogy, though the film’s structure – the fact that it keeps going back to the original text and its historical context – means this is never as reductive a parallel as it is in most contemporary gangland Shakespeares. Looking for Richard’s restless inquiry is not tied down to any one idea of Shakespeare, which means it will be relevant as long as Shakespeare is performed. It’s funny, too. Witnessing Shakespeare’s birthplace, Pacino’s friend and co-star Harris Yulin complains of feeling underwhelmed. Pacino suggests he come back in again: “You’re an actor, you can pretend to have an epiphany.”