Looking for Richard (1996)

The first time I saw this film was around 2010 or 2011, when I was in high school, where the film was part of a unit on “Richard III”. As a class we watched the film more than once, and it’s one of those films tied to a specific time and place for me, so watching it again some years later was an interesting experience.

The biggest difference I noticed was, when I watched the film in school I was sometimes frustrated by the sections of Pacino and his mustered team discussing Shakespeare, and just wanted to see the adapted scenes they filmed. I’d have rathered just a straight adaptation of the play, rather than the odd meditation on the play they produced. Watching it now, I feel much the opposite. The adaptation scenes are for the most part pretty sloppy, the only actor really excelling being Kevin Spacey (seriously, at times he seems the only one really comfortable with the material, and his facial expressions alone outmatch all other performances in the film-within-a-film). The majority of scenes, the out-of-character ones, are also sloppy, particularly in the first half, but that’s as much a structural problem, as the film is the product of six editors working with over eighty hours of footage Pacino presided over. The meat of the film is these scenes, and while a lot of them are pretty rough, there’s some great insight in them too.

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Some of the interviewed scholars and actors have really fascinating insight into not just the play itself, but acting and the art of staging and adapting Shakespeare. After a somewhat clumsy series of scenes discussing the difference between American and British approaches to Shakespeare, Derek Jacobi shares a very well-articulated summation of the issues. An unnamed scholar claims “The text is only a means of expressing what’s behind the text”, a profound realisation I wish was given more attention in the actual film.

While there are a few nuggets of brilliance like that, the sloppiness and clumsiness of the main team’s discussions on Shakespeare eventually circles around from feeling messy to feeling somewhat brilliant, as the juxtaposition between Pacino’s stuttering, clumsy attempts to describe Shakespeare, and his well-realised, powerful performance as Richard III himself, mounts up. That in itself felt like quite the statement and realisation.

There are some fun scenes of Pacino’s assembled team (including some great actors) interacting, including a great argument about the validity of scholarship versus acting (ending in a brilliant comic cutaway), but the film is so oddly paced and all-over-the-place structurally that I feel the most interesting points made are obscured by the actual form. Still, it’s a very fascinating experience, though perhaps more for Shakespeare fans, than for the more general audiences Pacino seemed more interesting in targeting. I give it three doughnuts a day, and an “Anointed” Shakespeare collection.

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