"Tell me what they deserve that do conspire my death with devilish plots?"
---Shakespeare: Richard III (Act 3, Scene 4)---
"Power defines Justice. Losers do not conduct war crimes trials."
I must admit I find a sort of poetry in the recent news that the remains of Richard III had been located beneath a parking lot in Leicester, England. Not that I give a whole lot of substance to the notion that Richard of Gloucester was as loathsome a creature as Shakespeare penned him out to be. It's just that it provides an interesting sort of punctuation to the whole affair. The next thing we'll know it'll be discovered that Romeo and Juliet actually jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
Technically and historically, Richard was no Adonis. Neither, on the other hand, was he "not shaped for sportive tricks, nor made to court an amorous looking-glass". But Shakespeare was writing during the days of Elizabeth I, and Liz was the granddaughter of the man who had Richard in the mood to trade his kingdom for a horse, so one can supposedly make allowances for dramatic license. Such license also contributed to what is perhaps one of Shakespeare's meatiest plays, attracting actors such as F. Murray Abraham, John Barrymore, Kenneth Branagh, Peter Dinklage (would so love to see that), Alec Guinness, Laurence Olivier and (interestingly) John Wilkes Booth. Shakespeare's Richard may hardly be letter-perfect in the history books, but it's a role for which the term "Actor" seems to have been made.
In film the play has also produced gems of the cinematic arts. Most critics speak glowingly of Olivier's 1955 version. It is, of course, extremely watchable, but Your Author also rather enjoys Loncraine's 1995 version with Ian McKellan (set in a fascist neo-Orwellian England).
And then, if not standing above these productions . . . but most certainly visible among them . . . we have Al Pacino's 1996 documentary "Looking for Richard".
As Pacino himself states in his narration, it has always been a dream of his to communicate his feelings concerning Shakespeare. In the course of 111 minutes he performs this with a vengeance. In an age where so many "documentaries" are little more than jumped-up rock videos, Pacino provides the audience with not only a performance of "Richard III", but a thorough annotation of the play as well as an entertaining examination of Shakespeare and the approach made to his work by actors. Watching this the viewer smoothly shifts from rehearsal to actual performance to production discussion; coming away not only with a wonderfully dramatic time, but something of an education as well.
Naturally we end up with a condensed version of the play. But so forceful are the pieces which are delivered we feel we've sat through the entire play twice. This is helped by Pacino's selection of the people to play the various roles. Kevin Spacey, Penelope Allen, Estelle Parsons, Kevin Conway, Aiden Quinn, Alec Baldwin (hey! Alec Baldwin can actually act), Winona Ryder, Frederic Kimball and a host of others. No slackers in this production, pumpkins. Penelope Allen's spirited performance as Queen Elizabeth alone would justify the cost of admission, as would Estelle Parsons' Queen Margaret and Kevin Spacey's deliciously conniving turn as the Duke of Buckingham.
In the title role, Al Pacino is no Laurence Olivier. But he comes pretty damn close. He radiates the true Shakespearean ideal of what the play's Richard III was: a genuine monster who'd strike out at anyone and dare any atrocity to claw his way to the throne of England. From the sardonic opening monologue to his plans for Winona Ryder's Lady Anne (dripping with ghoulish glee), to vicious rants worthy of Hitler, Pacino's shadow is always prevalent in the film. And in the non-play sections of the film his personality continue to keep the viewer focused.
And entertained. Always entertained. Besides providing an excellent way to get into Shakespeare, "Looking for Richard" stands as a textbook example of how documentaries should be made (and seldom aren't). Considering the scholarly nature of the film there are also moments of humor (some of it probably unexpected, such as the complaint by the French woman that Pacino and his crew were going to perform the play "with your Amereecain accents?"). Pacino is never unconscious of the fact that a gap exists between modern tastes and what is still perhaps the finest prose and poetry ever conceived in the English language. In "Looking for Richard" he struggles to construct a bridge between the Bard and the contemporary public and, if any failures result, they really can't be laid at the feet of Pacino. Considering his pedigree and resume, Pacino isn't playing the prima-donna here. He brings as honest and as clear a vision as possible to this project and the end, in this case, fully justifies the means.
A wonderful bit of work, and wholly accessible by anyone.