Jane Austen, move over. The trend toward literary movies is still going strong, but filmmakers have their eyes on another great English author. If all goes as planned, the recent series of Austen hits - "Emma," "Persuasion," "Sense and Sensibility," and the irrepressible "Clueless" - will give way to a string of movies inspired by the greatest of them all: William Shakespeare.
Shakespeare is no newcomer to commercial screens, of course. His many motion-picture successes include Laurence Olivier's dark "Hamlet" and colorful "Henry V," and in the late 1960s a romantic "Romeo and Juliet" by Franco Zeffirelli played literally for years in some cities.
More recently, Kenneth Branagh directed a moody "Henry V" and a bouncy "Much Ado About Nothing." Last year brought noteworthy productions of "Othello," with Laurence Fishburne, and "Richard III," with Ian McKellen.
These and other films notwithstanding, producing Shakespeare for modern-day audiences is never easy, since ways must be found to make his centuries-old voice sound fresh and relevant to contemporary ears. One method is to give a play an audacious new interpretation, as when last year's "Richard III" moved the action to fascist Europe during the 1930s. Another is to recruit high-powered names for the cast, as Branagh did in "Much Ado," which found room for everyone from Emma Thompson and Denzel Washington to Michael Keaton and Keanu Reeves.
"Looking for Richard," the first entry in this season's Shakespeare sweepstakes, puts both techniques into play. For sheer star power, the picture is hard to beat. Players in the dramatic scenes include Alec Baldwin, Winona Ryder, Kevin Spacey, Aidan Quinn, Estelle Parsons, Harris Yulin, and Al Pacino in the lead. Joining them for interview sessions about Shakespeare are Kevin Kline, James Earl Jones, Vanessa Redgrave, and John Gielgud, to name just a few.
The movie's approach to Shakespearean theatrics is also striking, since this is less an adaptation of a classic tragedy than a film about the challenge of staging Shakespeare in our time. Directed by Pacino, it oscillates between dramatic scenes from "Richard III" and documentary scenes about the adventures of Pacino and company, who tackle the job of bringing blank verse (it doesn't rhyme!) and iambic pentameter (what's that?) to generations more attuned to Hollywood fantasies and MTV spectacles than the niceties of Elizabethan poetry.
What makes "Looking for Richard" the most entertaining Shakespeare movie in recent memory is partly the variety built into its blend of fiction and nonfiction.
If you get bored with one style, the gears are guaranteed to shift within a few minutes. Also helpful is the unexpected humor that emerges when these good-natured Shakespeareans decide to test their optimistic view of the Bard as a living, breathing force in the contemporary world.
Refreshingly, they go not only to the theaters of New York and London but also to sidewalks, street corners, and neighborhoods where everyday people share opinions about Shakespeare's relevance and power. The troupers bring along their talents but leave their pretensions behind.
"I'm confused just explaining it, so I can imagine how you must feel hearing me," says Pacino about "Richard III" in a characteristically candid moment. Anyone who has wrestled with the Bard's knottier moments will laugh with pleasure at this and similar remarks, which offer a kind of enjoyment that no earlier Shakespeare film has served up in quite the same way.
Coming next in the Shakespeare-movie marathon is "Twelfth Night," with Ben Kingsley as Feste the clown, Nigel Hawthorne as Malvolio the villain, and a foursome of solid talents - Helena Bonham Carter, Imogen Stubbs, Toby Stephens, and Stephen Mackintosh - as members of the befuddled love quadrangle. They're directed by Trevor Nunn, the Royal Shakespeare Company wizard whose stage credits include "Nicholas Nickleby" and "Les Miserables." It's due Oct. 25.
A modern-day version of "Romeo and Juliet" arrives Nov. 1, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes as star-crossed lovers who fill a gritty town called Verona Beach with Shakespearean verse spoken in unadorned American accents. The director is Baz Luhrmann, who made his screen debut with the rollicking "Strictly Ballroom."
Shakespeare is so hot at the moment that even the Troma Team, a production company specializing in over-the-top exploitation pictures, is getting into the act with "Tromeo and Juliet," due later this season. But more attention will certainly go to Branagh's much-awaited "Hamlet," a four-hour extravaganza due on Christmas Day with Branagh himself in the lead.
How will his production compare with those of Olivier and Zeffirelli, among others? Will his performance be the equal of Olivier's, or Nicol Williamson's, or Mel Gibson's - or of his own brilliant Iago in "Othello" last year? Shakespeare buffs, drama fans, and just plain movie lovers will be lining up soon to learn the answers.
'Looking for Richard' has a PG-13 rating. It contains violent scenes from 'Richard III' and some vulgar language.