Looking for Richard (1996), Director Al Pacino

Laura MacDonald

Prologue

Was ever woman in this humour wooed?
Was ever woman in this humour won?
                        Richard III, 1. 2

As anyone who has lived with me can attest, I am a notoriously grumpy movie watcher and as this video was popped into the DVD player I muttered, “There better not be any special features.  This movie is, like, all special features.  All behind the scenes stuff…grumble, grumble…”

To which my much better half replied, “That’s pretty much what a documentary is, sweetie.”

I responded with silence (silence and the sound of a chip bag being opened).

Looking for Richard and Finding Al

It’s a docu-drama type thing.

Al Pacino

Spot on, Al.  Spot on.

Touted as a behind-the-scenes look at the production of an American film version of Richard the III, featuring one of Shakespeare’s most villainous of villains, we watch the tension, the struggle and the efforts to understand Shakespeare from a modern day perspective and yet, here’s the catch: there is no movie being filmed.

This is the movie.  Richard the III is not.

Looking for Richard is a movie about Al Pacino playing Richard.  Cultivating the perfect scenario where he can rule the Shakespearean landscape as he sees fit, cutting and pasting the text to meet his aim, charming famous actors into joining him in his ill-defined endeavour, ruling the silver-screen…his way.

Sound familiar?  Richard as King, Al as director.

Hmmmm…

Now, after tactlessly implying that Al Pacino is an amoral, murderous, covetous scoundrel, I will follow up by saying that I really did enjoy some of his directorial choices.   The aim, as stated early in the film, is to make Shakespeare accessible to an American audience.  I believe that they have achieved this in Looking for Richard – that by the end of the movie we, the audience, do find him.

By allowing us to sit in on the table readings and the discussions and debates that ensue, we learn about the play along with all the famous players in this film (Hey! That’s the premise for the Bard Brawl).  As audience members, we aren’t intimidated because we can see that we are not the only ones who are confused.  Even the seasoned actors are more than a little bit muddled. We are merely joining the ranks of centuries of confused Shakespeare-o-phobes.

We are also given a glimpse at the common-folk as Pacino and co. take a casual walk down a New York street falling into lockstep with locals who give their two cents on Shakespeare.  They meet resistance (“It sucked”).  They meet clichés (“To be, or not to be”). They meet pragmatic Brits (“He’s a great export”).  They also meet a wise-beyond-his-toothless-grin man who believes that Shakespearean language gives us access to our feelings and that, “if we felt what we said we’d say less and mean more.”

Yeah, what that guy said.

Pacino also does a beautiful (albeit an overt) job of juxtaposing the urban New York landscape with the opening lines from Richard the III and we start to see how that Shakespeare can thrive in modernity.  Thrive but not without obstacles.  We watch as Pacino and his gregarious cohort Frederick Kimball try to seek inspiration by travelling to England to visit the actual birth room of Shakespeare only to be interrupted by the sound of sirens.  Alternatively, there is a lovely brief moment when Pacino is walking down some city street and we can hear the sound of horse hooves clopping by.

It gives a whole new meaning to the word timeless.

Another shining moment in the film is when Kimball is explaining iambic pentameter by comparing an iamb to an anteater:

And five of them: Da-da da-da da-da da-da da-da.  Make a pentameter line, five iambs.  An iamb is like an anteater. Very high in the back and very short, little front legs: da-DA!

You just can’t beat a solid anteater analogy.

What falls short in Looking for Richard are the scenes from the “movie they are filming”; all the characters seem considerably more believable with their backwards baseball caps, messy hair and civvies.  Their Elizabethan garb becomes a distraction and actually goes against their effort to make Shakespeare accessible to an audience that is not familiar with the plays.  This is not to say that it never works but, in the context of this film, when we are being thrown from rehearsal to table work and back, from in-costume to baseball cap to in-costume again; from trendy Ray Bans to bejeweled crowns, it is a lot to take in .  Pacino, speaking about the language of Shakespeare, asserts that it is not difficult.  He just says, “you have to tune up”.  I would suggest that he take his own advice when it comes to the costume as well – our eyes need to get accustomed to the floppy hats, over-sized crowns and Alec Baldwin in a puffy Seinfeldian shirt.

Truth be told, I started getting anxiety while watching Looking for Richard but was too scared to ask if the movie version of Richard III was ever really produced because if it was, I might have to watch it.  One of the scholars in the film stated that “The action of the play, the sense of exciting movement is Richard’s finding out the point beyond which people won’t go.” I believe that sentiment holds true for this film as well.

Epilogue

An honest tale speeds best, being plainly told.
                        Richard III, 4. 4

In terms of introducing an unfamiliar play to the general masses, Pacino was on the right track by stacking the deck with so many familiar faces: Alec Baldwin, Derek Jacobi, Sir Arthur John Gielgud, Winona Ryder, Kenneth Branagh, the principal from The Breakfast Club (though he has no lines, let alone a gem like “Don’t mess with the bull, young man.  You’ll get the horns”) and Kevin Spacey, to name a few.  We get a peek at the struggle and discovery involved in putting up Shakespeare for a modern day audience.  Or at least the struggle involved with thinking of putting it up.  And since struggle and discovery are the ingredients to every good quest, I say it’s worth embarking on the journey…as long as you have plenty of chips.

Laura Macdonald

The Merchant of Venice (2004), Michael Radford (director)

Andre Simoneau

The Merchant of Venice is a tragicomic tale of hypocrisy, pride and revenge, and Michael Radford’s beautiful production is a subtle and faithful interpretation of Shakespeare’s ambiguous and highly controversial play.

——-

Though ultimately it serves as a compelling case for mercy and the value of love, The Merchant of Venice has, over the centuries, come to be seen as one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays, thanks in no small part to the cruel and complex depiction of the Jew Shylock, portrayed by Al Pacino.

While he acknowledges the inherent judeophobia of the time, Radford (1984, Il Postino) takes great care in bookending the piece with scenes that help impart a deeper context than may have been evident to modern audiences in the original text.

In a written prologue added by Radford, we are told of the pitiful conditions in which the Jewish community lived in 16th century Venice, confined to guarded ‘gettos’ and forbidden from owning land. Shylock himself describes in detail the pains which he has suffered at the hands – and feet – of the Christian bourgeoisie. In fact, there are several passages in the play which point to the hypocrisies of the ruling class and which highlight the humanity of the oppressed. All this only serves to amplify the ambiguity of Shakespeare’s villain and to further the case for Shylock as a tragic figure.

The infamous debt at the heart of the story involves Antonio, a nobleman who has agreed to take out a loan from Shylock on behalf of his bankrupt young friend Bassanio, to help him in the pursuit of the beautiful Portia. Though highly sought after, Portia may only select a suitor by means set out to her by her late father, and Bassanio wants to make a worthy impression. Meanwhile, Shylock’s daughter Jessica runs off with one of Bassanio’s men, never to return, and they all sail to Portia’s court. As Bassanio wins Portia’s hand in marriage, Shylock slips into a depression. When Antonio is unable to repay his debt, Shylock vows to avenge the injury dealt to him by exacting the horrific – though lawful – execution of his bond.

In his portrayal of Shylock, Pacino is at the top of his game, delivering the famous ‘hath not a jew eyes?’ speech with empathy and his trademark unrestrained passion. He is aptly matched by, the sexually ambiguous Jeremy Irons as frail Antonio, the title merchant who is sworn by bond to deliver a pound of flesh to his creditor. The cast is rounded out by the excellent Lynn Collins as Portia, who delivers an equally well-known speech on the ‘quality of mercy’, and Joseph Fiennes as her suitor Bassanio (Antonio’s lover?). There is also a number of highly skilled comic actors who step in to fill the play’s many clown parts.

Add to that an exquisite production design by the late Bruno Robeo and costume design by Sammy Sheldon to imbue the story with texture and atmosphere. Venice’s inimitable canals and unique architecture are on full display here, and lend an authenticity to the film which enhances the moral and historical undertones of the source material.

The Merchant of Venice is a problematic play for a variety of reasons, and poses many challenges to would-be performers. Little wonder then that it had never been filmed (with sound) before this. With his production, Radford and co. succeed in delivering a nuanced and intelligent reading of Shakespeare’s text, while managing to create a detailed visual palette to serve as its backdrop.

Andre Simoneau is a first line bard brawler and regularly reads for the Bard Brawl podcasts.

Andre Simoneau

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