High-spirited and infectiously energetic, Al Pacino’s “Looking for Richard” is a master class in Shakespeare and acting conducted by an uncommonly passionate and delightful teacher. Ranging from New York’s streets to the reconstructed Globe Theater in London, talking with everyone from strangers encountered by chance to scholars and celebrated actors, Pacino is the voluble, mercurial center of a film that ingeniously interweaves commentary on Shakespeare with analysis of, rehearsals for and key segments from a “Richard III” on film.
Remarkably cohesive, considering its disparate methods and aims, pie is nervy , personal, funny and emotionally charged throughout, a compelling tribute to the Bard and the players who make his words live. Given smart handling by Fox Searchlight, it should reach well beyond arthouses and into the mainstream that is Pacino’s obvious target.
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The film’s source, unmistakably, is the actor’s love for Shakespeare and desire to communicate the writer’s poetry to audiences of all stripes. Pic’s initial section registers some of the barriers to general appreciation as Pacino , Wearing a backward baseball cap and quizzical expression, samples man-in-the-street opinions as to the offputting difficulties of Shakespeare’s 16 th-century lingo.
The language is a tall hurdle to get over, and not just for those who last experienced it as a high-school endurance test. Pic also registers its challenges for American actors who, as John Gielgud notes, often don’t grow up experiencing the books and museums that provide the literature’s cultural context.
Yet Pacino eagerly demonstrates solutions to such puzzlements from the outset. He draws in scholars as well as other actors to elucidate the War of the Roses and other elements of the historical backdrop that help viewers grasp the motivations of the play’s characters and the gist of such speeches as Richard’s famous opening monologue.
At the same time, watching topnotch actors grapple with these roles gives both the history and the literature a vivid immediacy. While Pacino listens appreciatively to the likes of Gielgud and Vanessa Redgrave (who discourses eloquently on the spiritual force of iambic pentameter), he casts his “Richard III” with Americans and builds the drama’s foundations on the very physical rehearsal-hall interplay of cast members such as Penelope Allen, Estelle Parsons and Harris Yulin.
The play emerges from all these commentaries and preparations like a gathering storm. Naturally, time permits no more than a healthy portion of key scenes to be included, yet these offer a surprisingly complete sense of the drama’s trajectory.
Richard seduces Lady Anne (Winona Ryder) with his bold lies; Clarence (Alee Baldwin) meets his pathetic end; Richard uses, then abandons, Buckingham (Kevin Spacey) while scheming and murdering his way to the throne; and, finally, Richard faces his own doom in the form of Richmond (Aidan Quinn).
What starts as history lessons and rehearsals has, by its end, left behind all intellectual props and achieved a magnificent emotional force. Pacino’s performance as Richard not only provides the film’s rawest, most ferocious energies, it also suggests why this play is ideal for the actor-director who wants to illuminate Shakespeare overall.
Endlessly stage-managing and commenting on his own villainy, Richard is himself simultaneously player, playwright and director, a grandly theatrical creation suited to the purposes of both the classroom and the cinema.
While intelligence, gusto and generosity characterize Pacino’s work with his cast, the film is equally noteworthy for the combined economy and clarity of its editing. It also shines with a general exuberance and good humor that provide a steady stream of comic moments and light-handed asides to buoy the drama’s weightier concerns.
Technically, pie has some of the ragged edges that often come with seat-of-the-pants filmmaking, but these add to the prevailing mood of spontaneity and rugged integrity.