Looking for Richard (1996)


I’d like to ask you all a question – what does William Shakespeare mean to you? Do you think he is simply an ancient goon of a writer whose work is overblown, boring and difficult? Or are you like me, where you think Shakespeare is possibly the greatest writer of all time? That isn’t to imply that I am some kind of genius, because I actually once thought of Shakespeare only as that complex high school book we all had to read. As it turns out, there is a lot more to Shakespeare than just the antique novelty of the period and the language, and as I soon came to discover, Shakespeare is characterized and reviled by his use of language which doesn’t fit in with language today, but what truly made William Shakespeare a writer above all others wasn’t how he wrote (the main reason why people dislike him), but rather what he wrote that was truly significant. If you take his plays and look beyond the complex language, and just look at the stories, you will find tale and deed more thrilling and emotional than you would care to imagine. If this appears to be a bit of an academic approach to a film, then forgive me. I will give full disclosure – I watched this film yesterday in preparation for a test I was writing on it, so if this veers more towards academia than cinema, please forgive me. But a film is a film, and one has to review everything that comes into his or her path.

Shakespeare on film is another matter. I wouldn’t dare even attempting to consider listing all the versions of Shakespeare, dating from the silent era, all the way through Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, Franco Zefferelli, Kenneth Branagh, Baz Luhrman and then to the present day where I eagerly await the opening of Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth. To indulge in chronicling the history of Shakespeare on film is not only a separate post, but perhaps a completely different blog in itself. I don’t dare undertake that feat at the present moment. However, if the vast, global history of Shakespeare on film means anything, is that Shakespeare is two things – modern and universal, which is contradictory to both the essence of the work of the man, and to the perception of his work. If the history of Shakespeare on film has taught me anything, is that the idea that Shakespeare is rooted in historical knowledge, than one would need to be incredibly smart to understand the words these characters say, is woefully misguided. I will be slightly crass here – Shakespeare was not high art, and in fact, it was written for idiots. They were stories of great men and majestic tales and stories, but they were essentially popcorn-plays, the ancient equivalent of a Michael Bay blockbuster. They were violent, vulgar stories of lust and revenge and murder, and satisfied the Elizabethean need for an escape. The idea that Shakespeare is some high art is contained in his legacy rather than his actual work.

The other point I made is that Shakespeare is universal. The idea that Shakespeare is a quintessentially British. It is not untrue that the work of Shakespeare originated in England, but then one should consider that Auguste and Louis Lumière were French and invented cinema, yet Hollywood, not Paris, is the centre of the filmmaking industry. Shakespeare’s stories may have been born in Britain, but they are global plays – Macbeth takes place in Scotland, Romeo and Juliet in Verona, and The Merchant of Venice…I’m not quite sure where that one was set.

Shakespeare’s plays have universal themes that are relevant in modern culture, and in every nation, because his plays are characterized not by their historical value, but by their moral and ethical undercurrents, which makes it possible for Shakespeare to be performed anywhere, at any time.

Now that I have the heavy stuff done, I can concentrate on the topic of this review. It seems strange to have spent four paragraphs before even mentioning the film I reviewed. However, it may not appear strange at all, because the previous discussion has been centered around the very themes of Looking for Richard, but making them the centerpiece of the review would just lead to a purely academic discussion, which none of us actually want. We want to talk about movies! Its unavoidable to not talk about these themes, but if I didn’t get them off my proverbial chest at the outset, the merits of Looking for Richard would have to take a seat to a discussion on Shakespeare, not unlike what I’ve written just above. Anyway, let us get on with the review, and I promise I will only talk about Looking for Richard as a movie, not an academic piece, I swear.

There are some eternal questions that govern our society – do you wear boxers or briefs? Do you like Winter or Summer? However, my favorite is perhaps the most important question in the history of humanity – Al Pacino or Robert De Niro? It is a choice I can’t dare to make. They are both the greatest actors of their generation, and each has unique masterpieces in their careers that are truly meaningful to film history. However, they both lost the plot a few years ago, in that strange time known as the 1990s. De Niro did mediocre comedies and brainless action films to pay the bills, while Pacino went in a different direction and became the jock with a PhD. Don’t get me wrong, he has always been an impeccable actor, but it took me a while to ever believe Al Pacino would love Shakespeare. That isn’t to suggest he is a bad actor – not even close. In fact, he could sell me my own arm and I’d instantly buy it from him. It just seemed that Pacino was too…cool. He seemed like someone who would prefer to make his money off his name than off his impressive acting resume, and he seemed like someone who wouldn’t want to go near Shakespeare. If Looking for Richard shows us anything, is that Shakespeare was incredibly hip, and maybe so much that his work may even be too hip for Pacino.

However, Pacino is a very revolutionary fellow, and he decides to go on a quest to make…something. I am still not quite sure what he wanted to make. In fact, it appears that Looking for Richard is two films – the documentary about the making of the film, that just so happens to be the other film Pacino seems to be making. Its a confusing concept, but we are presented with not a singular film and message, but two smaller films. Some may call this genius. I am inclined to call it Mr. Pacino not having a clue what he was trying to do. I adore the man, but I have no idea what he was trying to achieve here, and I’ve looked at this film backwards, forwards and any way from Sunday and I still have no idea, which is the beauty of this film. Pacino doesn’t pretend to be Errol Morris or Werner Herzog, approaching the subject of his documentary as a man documenting some event through the eyes of others. Rather, he thrusts himself as the main subject of this film, and while it may seem slightly vain, I assure you that it is for the best intents and purposes, as the audience goes on Pacino’s quest to find the meaning of Richard III, and to find the meaning of Shakespeare in the current world. He succeeds and fails along the way, and it might prove to be Pacino giving his most emphatic performance as himself here, because we can’t help rooting for the underdog. In this case the underdog is the Academy Award winning, beloved Hollywood figure considered the greatest actor of his generation. Yet his credentials take a backseat to the fact that he is an American trying to do Shakespeare.

The beauty of Looking for Richard lies in the fact that this feels like an insider film. It strikes me as being a home movie of the stars. Pacino assigns all of his Hollywood pals into this film, but none of them receive any huge introduction or praise. There will be people speaking on screen, and unless you know why they are, you’re going to be lost as to why they are significant. I won’t list all the famous people who pop up, because its quite fun to play this highly evolved game of Where’s Waldo, but rest assured that there are some very particularly big stars with cameos in this, which speaks more to Pacino’s power than to the power of Shakespeare.

Looking for Richard is a great film. It is frequently funny and not at all pretentious. It shows the relevance of Shakespeare in the modern world, and how there is a rift between the two big theatrical/cinematic nations and their perceptions of The Bard’s work. Pacino was a great sport for actually doing this, and while I did want a bit more from this film, it was still a pleasant experience, and proves that Pacino can be diverse with any challenge. If you love Shakespeare, you’ll get a kick out of this and all the references and inside jokes. If you despise Shakespeare, this film could easily be the one to convert you.

Just a note: if you liked this film, then I highly recommend Richard Loncraine’s film version of Richard III, that came out the year before, which starred Ian McKellen as Richard.


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