The play may be the thing, but movies have always voraciously consumed the literature of the stage--and with wildly mixed results. A lot of plays simply don't belong on screen (most anything with fewer than ten characters, for example). A lot of modern plays need the intimacy of the stage to communicate the playwright's ideas--that's why they were written as plays in the first place. And in some cases, movie versions of theater classics are just too terribly reverential. Remember Sir Laurence Olivier's highly Freudian 1948 Hamlet? It won Oscars, no less. But even though he used voice-over narration to represent his interior monologues, shot the picture at historic Elsinore Castle and tried to make the whole thing, well, cinematic, it looks pretty clunky today.
Yet as a recent spate of films has amply demonstrated, Shakespeare's plays can be made to work as movie scripts. In fact, the Bard as celluloid hero is even a subject dear to the heart of Al Pacino. And the Denver International Film Festival's closing-night film this year is Pacino's hot new documentary Looking for Richard, which explores his search for the truth about the character and the message behind Richard III. The festival also offers Royal Shakespeare Company player Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night.
These films have plenty of precedents, of course. After a lot of semi-interesting attempts to shoot Shakespeare from the 1930s on, Italian director Franco Zeffirelli proved that the playwright's most famous lovers were really teenagers in his incredibly poignant 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet. Roman Polanski made a really horrific Macbeth in 1971. And since daring young English-theater actor Kenneth Branagh has taken to filming Shakespeare (Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing were arthouse hits in 1989 and 1993, respectively), things just haven't been the same. Branagh made a terrific Iago in the revisionist Othello put out last year by Oliver Parker. And that's because Branagh made Shakespeare accessible--not by changing the language of the play, but by reading it with a more deliberate interpretation of every single line and by careful editing to enhance meaning without sacrificing poetry. He not only suited every gesture to the word, he suited every nuance of pronunciation to it, too. These films didn't offer performances from the Robert De Niro school of naturalism, but they were true to the spirit of the plays. Only Keanu Reeves actually stunk in Much Ado--maybe because he's a movie star, not an actor.
Pacino, of course, is a terrific movie star. But unlike Keanu, he can act, too. So the Godfather has made us an offer we just can't refuse--Looking for Richard is a striking paean to Shakespeare and the art of acting. Pacino's approach is a tad more theatrical than is usual in the movies these days--he visibly enjoys pronouncing some of these words. But hey, not everything has to look like the Hollywood standard of movie acting.
As Shakespeare wrote him, Richard was an archvillain--he really got into evil. So, too, does Pacino. Whereas Ian McKellen brazenly applied Shakespeare to the problem of fascism in last season's jack-booted version of Richard III, Pacino really wants to illuminate a tyrannical character.
One reason Shakespeare does adapt to the screen lies in the fact that for him, "all the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players." His action takes place in castles, palaces, battlefields, forests and other large outdoor environments. There's lots of space to move a camera around--unlike in, say, the drawing-room comedies of Moliere. Pacino takes Shakespeare at his word and locates Richard in cold stone rooms, dark stairwells and large, grassy fields.
Another reason Shakespeare adapts so well to the screen is the Big Picture factor of his stories. In his best plays, he's not just describing a narrow little world; he's describing some universal aspect of the human condition: The meaning of the play often lies in the poetic realizations of its characters rather than in its plot. Once the conventions of the stage are removed, a new kind of Shakespearean performance can emerge. And that, too, is what Looking for Richard is all about.
You have to know and love the art of acting to love this film. Acting, like every other art, has its egos and its hacks, but it's ultimately about serving the work, about creating a whole breathing human being from the sketch left by a playwright. And when that playwright is Shakespeare, the actor has another task as well--to let the poetry breathe through the character while remaining within the bounds of believable human behavior.
As Pacino well knows, bringing a play to life and searching for and revealing character is the actor's job. It takes talent, but it also takes intelligence. In Looking for Richard, Pacino shows how an actor--in this case, arguably a great one--seeks out the meaning of a great play. He points out that you don't have to change the language and you don't even have to understand every word. He goes to great actors like John Gielgud, Branagh, Derek Jacobi and James Earl Jones to learn what they know and find out why they love Shakespeare. He interviews scholars for historical reference and even for some line interpretations. But he goes to the street to hear what ordinary people know of Shake-speare, too. One woman says she saw Hamlet and it "sucked." An Italian-speaking man apologizes for watching too much TV but adds, in English, "To be or not to be, that is the question." And another man, grizzled, missing a couple of teeth but wonderfully sensitive and intelligent, points out that Shakespeare teaches empathy for others. He should be taught in schools, the man suggests, because young people have not learned empathy.
Pacino's approach to performance--ferreting out hidden meaning, coaxing and listening to others--is far removed from what we see in another Film Festival offering, filmmaker Amy Tinkham's This Acting Thing. Full of anger toward the profession, the film ridicules actors mercilessly via characters who are self-absorbed, emotional and childish to the extreme. Wanting to be an actor or movie star is not the same thing as wanting to act. But Tinkham doesn't get it. She has no love for the profession itself and no sense of what it means to penetrate character or to love the language and intelligence of an author. There are some dazzling moments of ego and of self-mockery in Pacino's film, too. The difference is that Pacino takes the work more seriously than he takes himself.
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So does Trevor Nunn, whose Twelfth Night is another successful transition from stage to screen. Unlike Branagh and Pacino, Nunn embraces the most perfect naturalism he can among his performers. He chooses to interpret this comedy of mistaken identity with more tender mercies than are really necessary (a broader comic style suits the subject better), but his strong directorial hand still brings it all together gracefully.
Nunn has cut the play up a bit, choosing the old parallel editing style of Hollywood to show that two scenes are going on at the same time. He has made poor old Malvolio, the tattletale servant, pathetic instead of absurd and pompous, and he underscores the gender-bending of the plot to comment a little more pointedly on contemporary feminist and gay issues. And it works. We don't laugh as heartily as we might, but everything makes perfect sense and is beautifully realized.
On screen or off, the play is still the thing. Guys like Nunn and Pacino prove it once again.
The Denver International Film Festival, at the Continental and AMC Tivoli 12 theaters, from October 17 through October 24, 321-