In what is effectively Kevin Spacey and Sam Mendes’ first screen collaboration since American Beauty, Whelehan follows the pair, along with the fellow members of the Bridge Project Company, as they tour the world with their stage production of Richard III. While fascinating to see such talented actors – not to mention the indelible, diligent crew – at the top of their game and honing their craft, the more intimate, candid moments are frustratingly underdeveloped. Occasionally we’re treated to scenes where we see the actors come off stage following a big scene, allowing us this unique privilege of catching them in this rare moment of euphoria, yet such sequences are few and far between, replaced instead by a more conventional use of talking head interviews played over rehearsal footage.
As a result, the picture enters into several bouts of tedium, as question marks remain over the need for this to be presented in feature length format. The actor’s respective journeys are not particularly palpable, as the tone remains the same throughout, and positive remarks of the entire experience make up much of the dialogue. Though naturally it’s encouraging that they all had such a jolly good time, as this doesn’t waiver from such a sentiment, the film struggles accordingly. We’re missing that form of conflict, and while rare and refreshing to see such warmth, the viewer’s enjoyment is put under threat.
Everybody gets on, and the film is comprised, mostly, of people singing each other’s praises. You just need that arc, a disequilibrium of sorts, be it an argument between cast members, or the lighting not working. Anything. However that’s the risk taken with documentaries, where luck is so prevalent – you either strike gold, or have to settle for bronze. As actor Isaiah Johnson says, if this had been an all-American cast, it would have been far more fiery. It seems us Brits just aren’t confrontational enough. All that being said, it is somewhat refreshing, for a change, to just see people enjoying themselves and having a fantastic experience. So often in documentaries, we are exposed to disquieting, unsettling stories – and while they’re usually more compelling, and exciting to indulge in, there is room for pieces such as this, which is merely a celebration of a wonderful collaboration, and the optimism that exists is infectious and emanates off the screen.
To compliment the feature, there is a socio-political context, as this tale of a tyrannical King is toured around the Middle East, with Richard III invariably compared to the likes of Gadafi as a result, giving the tale a timeless feeling, placing it triumphantly in the contemporary world. So despite the distinct talent of all of those involved – from Spacey to Mendes to Whelehan, the biggest winner in this instance is a certain William Shakespeare. To see his perennial words illuminate, entrance and inspire audiences across the globe, from so many different walks of life, is simply breathtaking.