In the world of Shakespeare on film, there are many citizens, but only a few really stand out. Akira Kursawa’s Throne of Blood (nee Macbeth) and Ian MacKellen’s Richard III for their fascinating interpretations and performances come immediately to mind. And then there are Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V and Hamlet for their classic and down-to-earth depictions (not to mention full-text presentations). There are filmed stage performances as well, but those are a different discussion and, arguably, a different genre.
As Hamlet is a requirement for younger actors, Lear, like Prospero (or Prospera), is a right of passage for venerable actors. In fact, Glenda Jackson is joining that list soon as well. It would have been a great disappointment not to see Anthony Hopkins (Thor: Ragnarok) tackle Lear before he folded up his career…not that that seems to be coming any time soon. And Richard Eyre’s (The Dresser) adaptation and direction makes this an interesting Lear indeed.
One of the challenges of Lear is that it starts far into the story of this tragic family. We can intuit a lot, but it often starts with such a level of animosity from the children that it feels like a cheat. Eyre’s choices help us really see the fear and hatred build in Regan and Goneril, played by Emily Watson (Kingsman: The Golden Circle) and Emma Thompson (Bridget Jones’s Baby) . We also see Lear change and deteriorate wonderfully through the piece. And though not quite as topically impactful as Ian McKellen’s Richard III, the modern setting also works nicely allowing it to resonate with the growing concerns of eldercare.
There are some wonderful side performances in the various houses as well from Christopher Eccleston (Unfinished Song), Tobias Menzies (The Night Manager), Jim Carter (Downton Abbey), and Jim Broadbent (The Lady in the Van). However, you may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned the two integral roles of Cordelia and The Fool, respectively played by Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth) and Karl Johnson. Both are serviceable in their roles, but neither really left an impact for me, which has something to do with the actors, but also with some burden on the directing choices in which Eyre’s approach has some intriguing shifts in focus beyond setting.
It is the Edmund/Edgar machinations which are made the center of the story for most of the movie. These mirrored relationships were always important, but wrenching the center of the play off the titular character was interesting. The bastard, played by John Macmillan, and the son, by Andrew Scott (Sherlock), are both powerful performers. However, despite the interesting effect on plot structure, their screen relationship is forced and never really gels…even at the end. Another interesting change is that the Fool is disposed of with scant comment (and probably without much import for most of the audience). It is done in set-up for the final scenes, which are always discussed dramaturgically as the substitution of Cordelia for the Fool (and after Lear and Mad Tom have each taken some ownership), but it has an incomplete impact and import the because it is executed so dismissively.
For all the solutions this production finds in bringing the motivations to life, the film exacerbates the problem of compressed time by virtue of its length. Despite good visual bridges, the plot is forced along far too quickly (115 minutes). Honestly, this tale could probably sustain a mini-series in length and thereby get places more believably. Shakespeare’s wonderful prose aside, the credibility of the choices has always been a challenge in this play. Huge leaps based on long-festering slights are necessary, but hard to digest for the audience given the scope of Lear’s travels and the evolution and impact of his story on an entire country.
I could keep dissecting this production, which is actually a good sign. There is much to chew on. Often you only get one or two interesting aspects to chew on…but Eyre and Hopkins provide a full meal, if not all the courses. If you enjoy Shakespeare, you must see this production. If you come to the Bard only on occasion, you may find this a bit different than what you expect, intriguing, and certainly shorter than your typical play. It is the magic of Shakespeare that his work continues to make sense and have impact in various conceptualizations, settings, and times, even when some of the specifics may be confusing as society changes.