King Lear

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July 20, 2010 by Matthew Mesaros

Here we have what must surely be the bleakest Lear on film. Peter Brook has cut the play to the bone (cutting over half) and liberally re-arranging and conflating events. But much like Olivier’s Hamlet the edits are almost always intelligently done and finely stitched together. If Brook has reduced the majesty of the play, what he’s substituted it with is a painfully intimate cinematic experience. Brook’s Lear feels like Lear a la Ingmar Bergman’s chamber period with its emphasis on stark faces, starker landscapes and naked emotional impact.

In the role of Lear we have Paul Scofield, whose performance was voted the best Shakespearean performance of the 20th Century by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Scofield’s Lear matches the severity of Brook’s production. This is not a sympathetic, pathos-filled Lear; rather, Scofield’s Lear is a menacing, terrifying, stone-cold figure. What he lacks in the dynamics of an Olivier or McKellen he makes up for in sheer oppressive power. When Scofield looks into the camera, you feel the seething internal forces of Lear. His inimitable voice alone is enough to make one quake.

Unfortunately, the supporting cast is hurt much more by Brook’s cuts and somewhat leaden performances. Susan Engel’s Regan and Irene Worth’s Goneril are rather flat. The Edmund (Ian Hogg), Edgar (Robert Langdon Lloyd) and Gloucester (Alan Webb) side-plot feels slighted with a dearth of development. Quite frankly, for this production I think Brook would’ve been better off following in Welles’ footsteps by merely cutting it out. Jack MacGowran is a fine, if somewhat lower energy, Fool, and Anne-Lise Gabold is a beautiful, if distant, Cordelia.

But what the production lacks in an outstanding supporting cast it makes up for in the cinematography and location shooting in Denmark. The locations provide a sense of visual realism of the place so that when we hear “Poor Tom’s a’cold!” we really believe it! The icy locations combine with cinematographer Henning Kristiansen’s frostbitten frames to visually express the abject nihilism of Shakespeare’s play and Brook’s production. Kristiansen makes excellent use of close-ups, montage, soft-focus and a judicious moving camera to supplant whatever substance is missing in the language, story or characters.

One fascinating aspect about the film is that Scofield and Brook almost never “play up” the drama. This is an extremely subdued Lear, and those who appreciate the play for its thunderous emotions, raging madness and the often downright evil language might be disappointed in this presentation. Personally, I think it reveals a wonderfully fresh perspective of the play. We have Olivier and McKellen who are both superb in the “classic” Lear mode, but, as far as I know, there is no other Lear like Brook’s and Scofield’s on screen.

This overall flattening of the dynamics makes for some interesting, if not always successful, readings of scenes. Lear’s initial raging against his daughters is an instance where it doesn’t quite work, but, alternatively, I think it does in the opening “court” scene which may be the darkest ever filmed. We lost the linguistic impact of the storm scene, but we gain a much more subtler form of emotional reinforcement via Scofield’s nuanced degradation and Kristiansen’s lens and editing. The finale, again, saps the pathos out of the play, but it’s also perhaps the most devastating Lear ending filmed as Scofield seems to sink into hell’s oblivion.

Ultimately, this Lear reveals a general truth about screen adaptations of Shakespeare in that, sometimes, the majesty of the language and breadth of the theater must be sacrificed in order to capture the tonal spirit through the images. Unfortunately, there almost always seems to be a disconnection between Shakespeare that’s liberally adapted to make cinematic masterpieces (like Kurosawa’s Ran) and Shakespeare that’s faithfully adapted to make, well, screened theater productions. Brook’s Lear definitely falls into the “cinematic” category, and it works superbly on that level.

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