Looking for Richard

(Al Pacino, USA, 1996)


For about the first hour of Al Pacino's Looking for Richard – "a sort of docu-drama thing", as the director-star breathlessly explains – I was pretty captivated.

The film starts in a wild flurry of glimpses and feints: Al in the street, asking anybody what they know of Shakespeare; Al reciting the opening monologue of Richard III to a bemused student audience; Al gathering his merry band of actors and conspirators.

There is a lot – maybe too much – of Al in Looking for Richard. His trick of presenting himself as simultaneously clown, seeker and a deeply passionate, dedicated actor never quite comes off. Pacino does not come close to the ironic, multi-layered self-portraits achieved in Nanni Moretti's Caro diario (1994) or Ross McElwee's Sherman's March (1985).

But mercifully, this film is about Shakespeare as much as Pacino – and especially (as Al's spirited companion Frederic Kimball puts it) "the actor's Shakespeare". The performers here consult the scholars, research the historical background, and find out what iambic pentameter is, but when the crunch comes they must find a way – their own way – to connect with the soul and meaning of Shakespeare's text.

What makes Pacino's quest equally fascinating is the palpable cultural anxiety animating it: the fear of every American actor that, because they are not British, they can never "get" or give Shakespeare properly. So Al takes himself off to the Bard's birthplace to confront this anxiety, with some highly amusing results.

There seem to be two prevalent, opposed attitudes towards actors. Some (including myself) adore actors, and are fascinated by the processes whereby they arrive at a performance. Others regard actors as narcissistic, posturing fools who should never speak publicly about their craft. If you have ever tended towards the latter unkind thought, Looking For Richard is not the film for you.

By the end, even devotees of actors and acting may wish that Pacino had let himself be guided by an experienced director. In the over-abundant sample scenes staged from the play, Pacino understands only two elements of screen craft: that close-ups are good, and that actors can speak softly into a microphone. Everything else goes to hell.

Looking For Richard has some marvellous moments, as well as moments that make one cringe. But, on every level, it outstays its welcome.

© Adrian Martin February 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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