Kevin Spacey proved a gnarled and magnificent Richard III in Sam Mendes’s globe-straddling 2011–2012 production of Shakespeare’s ever-resonant tragedy. Crimped up like a ginger root, Spacey’s power-mad runt schemed and spat with consummate wickedness, tilting between the comic and the terrifying, even stirring something like sympathy. Too bad this doc covering the production’s 200 performances around the world is committed to the undertaking rather than to the work itself.
Early on, we hear Spacey’s Richard bark, “Now is the winter of our discontent, ” but Jeremy Whelehan’s film, distractible as a puppy in a room full of tennis balls, then jumps to something else, apparently suffering from the misapprehension that watching stage crews mount the sets or audiences file into theaters must be more edifying for audiences than hearing one of the world’s great actors speak more than the very first line of one of the world’s great plays.
Even worse: We glimpse Spacey and Annabel Scholey rehearsing the daft seduction scene, in which Richard woos and wins the widow of the king he’s murdered, and hear both performers speak at length about what a thrilling challenge it was to play it each night. But the manner of this Richard’s charming her remains a mystery for audiences who didn’t catch the original performances. The film layers the actors’ reminiscences over the scene itself, putting audiences in the strange position of wanting Kevin Spacey the person to hush so we can hear Kevin Spacey the actor. (I was stunned by the company’s performance in San Francisco; the show, and that scene in particular, deserve better.)
Only one speech from the whole of Richard III sneaks into the hurly burly of smiling castmembers bonding in Beijing, Qatar, and other spectacular places. Guess what? Touring the world for a year with a difficult play and a top-flight cast is both a pleasure and a hardship.
The movie is more the latter, although it occasionally honors the production itself with discussion of the specifics of performance or design. More often it’s devoted to the un-urgent business of letting us know that the cast did enjoy seeing the Great Wall of China. By the time we’re watching them sail over desert dunes in SUVs, the film has gone from feeling like a behind-the-scenes DVD extra to a conflict-free episode of The Amazing Race. In the end, all NOW reveals is that talented people did a difficult thing in far-off places — and that now they have a video scrapbook.