Looking for Richard

Al Pacino

Context

Pacino’s film was made in 1996 and represents the director’s attempt to demonstrate the enduring relevance of Shakespeare’s original play. The film was inspired by a resurgent interest during the 1990s in the nature of evil – think of American Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs

Plot

The opening animation, as the words ‘King Richard’ are joined by ‘loo’ and ‘for,’ making ‘Looking for Richard,’ immediately establishes the film’s purpose to form a clearer understanding of the play. 

 

The following sequence of autumn trees, overlayed with the narration, a quote from The Tempest, serves as a comment on the nature of theatre and what it means to be an actor. Pacino puts forth the idea that theatre and acting are illusionary. 

 

In the next scene, Pacino announces ‘This is my entrance,’ walks onto the stage and sees Shakespeare sitting in the audience. He then walks off the stage. This is a reference to how directors and actors often find Shakespeare intimidating, as well as the command Shakespeare has on media and performance. 

The film then shows Pacino and the author Fredric Kimball interviewing people in New York about Shakespeare. Most have nothing to say. One man replies ‘Shakespeare? What the fuck do you know about Shakespeare?’ which is ironically the exact question the film is seeking to answer. 

 

Kenneth Branagh is then shown, reflecting on what it was like to learn Shakespeare at school. He says it was uninteresting and boring: ‘it made no real sense because there was no real connection made.’ He continues to say ‘by taking this one play, King Richard III, we could communicate our passion for it.’ In doing so, he articulates the film’s purpose: to highlight to audiences the reasons for Shakespeare’s enduring relevance. 

 

We then see Pacino lament ‘I don’t know why we even bother doing this at all. But we’ll give it a little try.’ He then provides some historical background for the play, while the scholar Barbara Everett explains the significance of Richard’s physical deformity. This sequence emphasises the importance of approaching Shakespeare’s work with an academic background. 

 

Pacino is then shown performing his speech, and we get the impression that he did it perfectly. 

The film returns to exploring the idea that Americans in particular are hesitant to engage with Shakespeare’s works. But, this is contrasted with Pacino and Kevin Kline explaining the nature of the play in colloquial terms, reflecting how accessible it can be. 

 

What follows is a brief exploration of the power of language to communicate truths and feelings: Vanessa Redgrave claims that for centuries, words have been ‘divorced from truth.’ The man with one tooth states that we would ‘say less and mean more’ if only we expressed our emotions more honestly. 

 

Pacino and Kimball go to Shakespeare’s home in Stratford. Pacino claims he had an ‘inner’ epiphany, but it is mostly left to the audience to gauge whether the experience had any spiritual or creative impact on either man. 

 

Pacino requests that a young actress who is capable of doing Shakespeare plays Lady Anne: they get Winona Ryder to fill the role. Kimball is furious that Pacino has been talking to scholars about Shakespeare, believing that it betrays the film’s purpose

Rehearsals and the film performance of Act 1, Scene 2, in which Anne is wooed by Richard, are shown. The performances are excellent, demonstrating the truth that an understanding of the text is necessary. But Pacino is doubtful: ‘We’ll never finish making this movie. We’re making a documentary about making Shakespeare accessible to people.’ 

 

In London, they go to the Globe Theatre. Pacino is impressed by the acoustics. He begins to speak as if he is Richard: ‘I want to be king, Frederic, make me king.’ 

 

Pacino then performs as Richard during his death scene. He asks, ‘Is this it? Are we done?’ He then asks John Gielgud ‘I love the silence… What’s the line?’ to which Gielgud replies ‘The rest is silence,’ Hamlet’s final line. Pacino then says ‘Silences,’ by which he refers to the end of the play, which is finished. 

 

The end of the film mirrors the beginning, as the lines from The Tempest appear once more: ‘Our revels are now ended…’ In doing so, the film makes its concluding statement on the nature of acting.