Looking for Richard Review by Roger Ebert

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The many characters in “Richard III” would have been roughly as familiar to the groundlings in Shakespeare’s Globe theater as the figures in the O.J. Simpson case are to us. But imagine 400 years have passed, and an audience is trying to remember exactly who Kato Kaelin was. If it’s true, as Al Pacino claims in “Looking for Richard,” that “Richard III” is Shakespeare’s most frequently performed play, it also is true that most people leaving the theater would not be able to pass a quiz on the family tree that Richard climbs (or chops down) on his way to the crown.

“All the characters!” Pacino exclaims at one point. “Who can keep it straight?” His quick-witted documentary deals frankly with the problems of performing Shakespeare, but it also treats the work with respect and love. Going in, I expected some kind of popular vulgarization. Coming out, I had learned a lot about Richard, about Shakespeare, and about the choices that must be made in producing a play. “Looking for Richard” is not a film version of the play about Shakespeare’s hunchbacked villain. (For that, you can consult Laurence Olivier’s 1955 version, or Ian McKellen’s 1995 film that transposed the action to a neo-Nazi 1930s England). If you add up all the line readings and scene snippets and occasional extended sequences, Pacino and his fellow actors do succeed in performing perhaps a fourth of the play, but their acting is mostly for the purposes of discussion and demonstration: This is a film about how to act and produce Shakespeare. It is also, not incidentally, a documentary about some days in the life of an actor who loves his craft and brims with curiosity and good humor.

The camera follows Pacino for months or even years (his hair grows and is cut, his beard appears and disappears) as he discusses “Richard III” in workshops and coffee shops, in Central Park and inside Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon (where the crew sets off a fire alarm).

He enlists many other actors in his ongoing seminar; we see Alec Baldwin, Estelle Parsons, Aidan Quinn, John Gielgud, Kenneth Branagh, Kevin Spacey, James Earl Jones, Vanessa Redgrave and Winona Ryder as Lady Anne (she and Pacino do the audacious scene where Richard murders Anne’s husband and then proposes marriage to her as she accompanies the dead body to the grave).

The actors are honest enough to admit that Shakespeare is an acquired taste. Familiarity with the words on the page and some experience in seeing stage and film productions will eventually allow any intelligent person to appreciate that Shakespeare is the greatest of all authors, but at first he can be discouraging and bewildering. Kevin Kline, who has played many Shakespeare roles, confesses that his first exposure came at a performance of “King Lear” during which he made out with his girlfriend and they left at intermission. One of the wonderful things about Shakespeare is that many of his own characters might have done the same.

Pacino conducts the film like a magician or impresario (I was a little reminded of Orson Welles presiding over “F for Fake”). He provides a running commentary, he discusses line readings, he does man-on-the-street interviews (“It sucks,” says one guy, whose choice of pronoun indicates he thinks of Shakespeare as a thing, not a person). And he acknowledges that a problem with Shakespeare’s history plays is that the characters, who were as familiar as pop stars to the Elizabethans, are largely unknown to modern American audiences. (“It’s gonna take four weeks of rehearsal just to figure out which characters we’re playing.”) The point is that the appreciation of Shakespeare is an ongoing project for any literate person. We pick up history and familiarity as we go along, and if we are lucky we eventually see the majesty, the humor, the sadness, the insight and the wisdom. “Looking for Richard” is the portrait of a man and his friends doing just that. Having chosen to be actors, they know they cannot respect their craft

without embracing its greatest writer. Having chosen to be recannot do less, and this film is a delightful inspiration.

9 responses to “Looking for Richard Review by Roger Ebert

  1. This is why Shakespeare is well known. His language and emotion used throughout all his plays are one of a kind and truly genius.

  2. All of Shakespeare work is still used today because the story and language he uses is the best. It is very hard to understand his language because of the time period and how many meanings are in his plays. I do enjoy the past language but I do understand how hard it is to grasp.

  3. i enjoyed the documentary, the connection between Shakespeare was great with the Al Pachino.

  4. I am not much of a Shakespeare guy, but the movie was interesting and also long. Shakespeare itself just does not interest me. I did like the one guy in the beginning that was being asked questions when he said “When we speak with no feeling we get nothing out of our society.” It just made sense.

  5. The film was pretty lengthy, however, it was still interesting. There was some parts of the film that were understandable, and some parts that went over my head. Basically, it was just understanding the work of Shakespeare, and how Shakespearean language emits more emotion and feeling.

  6. I really enjoyed the structure of this documentary. It weaved interviews and rehearsals with the actual adaptation of the play itself. It certainly made for an enjoyable viewing.

    I found it interesting how the film comments on Shakespeare’s legacy and the popularity of Richard III in the theatre world, yet that is all contrasted by America’s hesitance to embrace the words of Shakespeare. Yes, many find the language complex, maybe dated. However, the film questions if that is truly the case, or if we have been conditioned to believe we are unable to ever understand Shakespeare.

  7. I watched this movie, very long though. But, if one does not pay close attention you will not understand the many defined words. Al Pacino says to pay attention to the words of the past. The way people spoke in our past, was way more defined than today. I must say, I could not really get through everything, but I tried.

  8. I liked that this was a Shakespeare thing it was really interesting, it was a good film and totally love Shakespeare’s language in this.

  9. This was a great film to watch. I really liked how the film was shot in a documentary/ behind the scenes kind of way. I thought Al Pachino was a good director of the play because he really knew Shakespeare’s language and style.

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