Film: Seek, and ye shall find

Looking for Richard Al Pacino (12)
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The Independent Culture
Looking for Richard, the fragmentary version of Richard III for which Al Pacino is director, co-writer (of narration) and star, is a vanity project of sorts, but an unusually humble one. With his actor-colleague and ideas man Frederic Kimball in tow, Pacino goes to Stratford and the new Globe Theatre in London, interviews actors and academics, and asks passers-by in New York their impressions of Shakespeare. Pacino is approachable and anything but starry, at one point wearing shoes so studiously battered and scuffed they're like little method actors in their own right, shoes that have been passed as poor man's footwear, busy doing the research.

When not in costume (the film cuts freely back and forth within sequences between rehearsal and performance) Pacino wears a baseball cap turned backwards, either in imitation of a youth style or because it has Scent of a Woman written on the front, and he doesn't want to remind us of the Oscar he won for that film a few years ago. Perhaps he could have chosen to wear another cap - but maybe it's the only one he has.

The film's mission is to prove that American audiences can appreciate Shakespeare as long as they allow themselves to do so, even if they don't understand every word - a point that seems proved, incidentally, by the current US success of Baz Luhrmann's remake of Romeo and Juliet. Pacino and Kimball provide background information about history and the inter- relationships between characters in the play, though even they can hardly explain how Richard's elder brother Clarence comes to be played by an actor, Alec Baldwin, almost 20 years younger than Pacino - unless the idea is to provide an additional motive for the political murder, resentment of a magically unfading youth.

There is also a slightly less selfless aspect to the film's agenda: a desire to prove that American actors can play Shakespeare, as long as they can get over the panicky deference that we in these islands do so much to encourage. It helps Pacino's case that some of the British actors he talked to are astoundingly snooty or pretentious: Gielgud suavely pointing out that Americans tend not to go to art galleries, and so miss out on the look of the period; Vanessa Redgrave wittering on about what she calls a pentameter of the soul.

The actors don't exactly throw over their American accents, but certainly neutralise and homogenise them. Their verse-speaking is unfussy and assured. On the other hand, sound effects in big scenes - battle clangs and cries, courtly dances by the yard - might have been borrowed from BBC radio drama. Howard Shore's music, too, is standard stuff, with drums and choirs, which would go with virtually any history play. What is new exactly about this Richard?

Nothing is new, but much is impressive. There's no trace of the American brand of actorly pretension, Methodism - method acting is the subject of good-humoured jokes. At one point, Kimball, on pilgrimage with Pacino to Stratford, admits to getting no special thrill from seeing the bed in which Shakespeare was supposedly born. With teasing charm, Pacino tells him that if he's any sort of actor, he should be able to come in again and get it right. As for himself, he has had a purely internal revelation, not for public consumption.

As director, Pacino's approach is pleasingly collaborative and informal - he fearlessly flourishes his copy of Cliff's Notes on the play, and doesn't seem particularly thrown by the realisation that, thanks to a misreading of the text, he has cast two actors in what is actually one part. Penelope Allen as Queen Elizabeth defends her character against the assumption of her stage family (shared up to this point by the actors playing them) that she is hysterical, and this interpretation wins through. Kevin Spacey, the nebulously evil presence in the The Usual Suspects and Seven, shows both force and nuance as Buckingham, Richard's henchman, but is not able to extinguish his conscience without effort.

The best scene in the film (or the play within the film) is Richard's falling out with Buckingham and beginning to treat him as a betrayer. Pacino shares glory here with Spacey, but presumably he knows he can afford to, as the progress of the play sees Richard progressively denuded of both competition and company. Richard III may be the most frequently performed of all Shakespeare's plays - according to Frederic Kimball - but that isn't enough reason by itself for Pacino to do it. Richard is one in a long line of lonely tyrants for him, a monster who, thanks to his soliloquies, has a direct line to the audience.

Pacino's technique as a film-maker isn't much more than rudimentary: he uses a red filter for the battle of Bosworth, and Richard's dark night of the soul before the battle is a messy montage of apparitions. Stage conventions apply right up to the death scenes - and then it's Hollywood gore time. Pacino is no Orson Welles, but then his objective is much less quixotic - to refamiliarise, not to make strange.

If there is a final dividend in the project from Pacino's point of view, it must be that he gets to typecast himself and also to play strongly against his persona. If Richard Gloucester is a sombre brooder, consistent with the star's professional vein, then the Pacino we see off stage is far removed from it. He is relaxed, playful and funny. At one point, he sweetly interrupts Kimball's tirade against academics who think they know more about the play than the actors who have to speak the lines, by seizing a sword and dubbing him Sir Frederic - to which Kimball adds, "Ph.D.!" Al Pacino's performance as himself is a revelation, coming from an actor who has studiously avoided comic likenesses on screen

`Looking for Richard' opens tomorrow