At one point in 1996's Looking for Richard, director and star Al Pacino discusses how difficult it can be to understand people who find Shakespeare difficult to understand. He dismisses the idea that the language is "fancy" as one person calls it and argues that if one just listens and goes along with the story, one will get the gist, even if one doesn't understand everything. The film is a fascinating look at the process directors and actors for theatre and film go through in adapting Shakespeare for a modern audience, using Richard III as a subject. I would've preferred a straight forward adaptation of the play starring this film's cast but its documentary elements are illuminating and fun.
The documentary segments follow Pacino and his collaborator, Frederic Kimball, as they go from the earliest stages of a film production with a focus on casting and discussions with actors. It's funny how movies directed by actors predictably have lots and lots of close ups.
This isn't mere vanity, though. Actors know how much story they can tell with their faces. The difference between the stage and film for Shakespeare is also discussed, with one person, I forget who, observing that the ability to speak in a lower voice on film, without the need of a stage voice to carry across a theatre, allows the actor greater intimacy with the lines. It suggests a more personal connexion between the character and the words.
Pacino interviews a variety of actors and scholars. John Gielgud offers an intriguing though somewhat incomprehensible opinion on the difference between the way American and British actors tend to perform Shakespeare, suggesting it's because the British spend more time in galleries contemplating beautiful art. One can question how true this broad statement is and also whether it's valid in pinpointing why British actors are more comfortable with the material though there's some insight, I think, in the idea that internalising brilliant artifice through rigorous contemplation makes one more comfortable with the scope and beauty of Shakespeare.
The two most interesting commentators, though, were Vanessa Redgrave and Penelope Allen--the latter plays King Edward's wife Elizabeth in Pacino's production. We see Pacino assembling actors in a hotel room to discuss their scenes and it's wonderful seeing how personally the actors attach themselves to characters. Allen's vociferous argument as to her character's motives is inspiring to watch.
Winona Ryder as Lady Anne is probably the weakest point of this production. Her turning on a dime interpretation of the scene where Richard woos Anne is kind of embarrassingly shallow and drains the scene of much of its insight and horror, turning it almost into broad comedy.
Pacino's performance as Richard is really good, as you might expect. He's vicious and magnetic.
The cast also includes Alec Baldwin as Clarence and an underused Kevin Spacey as Buckingham. I saw the film a few nights ago at a free screening at San Diego's Old Globe with my friend, and Shakespeare professor, Edith Frampton. The audience laughed when Spacey, in an interview segment, held forth on the nature of politicians who, in election time, typically promise change and talk about how miserable things are now. This timely comment from Spacey is of course prompted by the timeless insight in the play itself.