Here’s a theory for you: Maybe a truly great rendition of King Lear is impossible. Beyond the unwieldiness of the play itself, with its multiple plots, incomprehensible Fool, and four-hour running time, there’s the great man at its center who must move through the psychic terrain of the all-powerful warlord, declining patriarch, raging madman, and child-like jester. Even if you actually managed to nail all of that, you’re left with a play that, were it actually performed with true greatness, would be unbearable, perhaps unwatchable.
King Lear is a play in which things fall apart, and there’s not even the slightest glimmer of hope that they can be put back together again. It’s the story of a family and nation coming apart at the seams, first because the titular monarch makes a colossal error in proposing to divide his kingdom between his three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. He compounds this error by disowning Cordelia, the youngest and truest of his children, when she refuses to flatter him. Deprived of power by his own hand, and then of respect by his daughters, Lear goes mad, but his madness is only a harbinger of worse things to come for the nation he once ruled. England splits apart further due to the machinations of Edmund the bastard, one of Shakespeare’s great psychopathic schemers, who betrays his good brother Edgar, and then his father Gloucester, and then sets Regan and Goneril against each other as they compete for his love.
In King Lear, life is a never-ending cascade of miseries, and the only comfort to be found is the promise that it will end. The play’s central motif is the torture of the human body. By its conclusion, a character is offered the crown and chooses suicide instead. Given everything that’s come before, you’re inclined to think he’s making the rational choice. Who would actually want to experience that delivered with consistent, persuasive, greatness?
In 1971, Peter Brook made a mad attempt to scale that bleak mountain in a film version of King Lear starring Paul Scofield. Set in ancient Britain, swathed in smoke and fog, Brook’s film is at times soporific, the performances frequently stuck in the stentorian rut carved decades earlier by Lawrence Olivier’s love of his own voice, yet there’s a kind of madness to it that peeks out again and again. Few films of Shakespeare’s plays contain anything as memorable or terrifying as the sequence in Brook’s Lear where Goneril, having just received the news that her plot to poison her younger sister Regan has succeeded, sways to and fro, in and out of frame with ever-increasing speed until she dashes her brains out on a rock, followed by a quick cut to Cordelia’s death by hanging.
Nothing so mad or so brilliant appears in the new film of King Lear, directed by Sir Richard Eyre, which arrives on Amazon streaming this Friday. Indeed, Eyre’s Lear feels almost like a pointed response to Brook’s classic, an attempt to do everything it possibly can to offer an alternative vision. If the ’70s film is like Edmund, whose respectable exterior hides a nature-worshipping madman with a mean streak a mile wide, Eyre’s version is Edgar, the lawful good brother, capable of feigning insanity but incapable of hiding his essential normieness. Eyre’s ambitions are far more modest than Brook’s: to give viewers a modern-day King Lear as crackling entertainment, filled with big performances, recognizable faces, propulsive editing, and a contemporary setting. Brook’s Lear begins with a long, silent pan across a crowd of medieval common folk, frozen in anticipation of who will be their next ruler. Eyre’s begins with crisp helicopter shots of a capital city at night—an image that, thanks to House of Cards, screams “political skullduggery.” Where Brook reached for the cosmic, Eyre’s King Lear remains deliberately on planet Earth, taking us through the inner sanctums of power as a nation falls apart.
I was deeply skeptical of Eyre’s decision to set King Lear in the present day. The mythical Lear supposedly lived sometime around the 5th century BCE. The lack of any meaningful institutions other than the monarchy is why the fortunes of England can rise and fall on the dysfunctions of one family. Yet the film is such a cracking good entertainment I barely even noticed that its world makes no sense. Unlike many stage directors who turn to film, Eyre has grasped that while theater is a medium of argument and language, film is the medium of action. His streamlined King Lear—shockingly, it runs just under two hours—never slows down, not even to signpost the Mad King’s journey towards self-awareness. When Anthony Hopkins laments:
They flattered me like a dog …When the rain came to wet me once, and the wind to make me chatter; when the thunder would not peace at my bidding; there I found ’em, there I smelt ’em out. Go to, they are not men o’ their words: they told me I was every thing; ’tis a lie, I am not ague-proof.
it’s part of a torrent of words, cascading as the king, now a homeless beggar, pushes a shopping cart around a town square.
One of the great pleasures of the film is to watch Hopkins, a brilliant actor with a side of ham, get to cut loose because the extravagance of Shakespeare requires it. Given his stature and the dexterous beauty of his speaking voice, Hopkins could have easily churned out a lazy, showboating Lear, but his turn at the role is fully realized. His rendition of the paterfamilias has a tenderness that can, at any moment, turn steely and vicious. If the early scenes are a delicate dance between Lear, his children (Emma Thompson, Emily Watson, and Florence Pugh as Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia), and his lieutenants (Jims Carter and Broadbent as Kent and Gloucester), it’s a dance where the time signature and steps keep changing at the King’s whims, and the consequences for putting a foot wrong are severe.
Particularly wonderful is the way Hopkins uses props. Through a handful of objects, he charts the vastly different modes that the character passes through, using a rain-dampened copy of the proclamation dividing his kingdom when he discusses filial duty, gripping a horseshoe to keep his rage in check, and donning the rumpled hat of his dead Fool for when he wants to play the comedian. It’s a neat trick that helps make the hairpin turns of the character coherent and manageable, while also feeling like a natural part of Lear’s madness. Of course he would focus on these fetishes as his world turns from the solidity of rule to the torrent of the storm.
Across the board, the acting in this adaptation is exquisite, a reminder that one of the reasons Shakespeare has persisted through the centuries is that he provides great actors with parts worthy of their gifts. Broadbent is unafraid of the oleaginous side of Gloucester, the way his mistreatment of his bastard son signals a smug complacency, which he then must break through to help his former king in secret. Best known stateside as Carson, the fastidious head butler of Downton Abbey, Carter plays Kent as an aging soldier heartbroken over his leader’s decline, but powerless to do anything about it but remain loyal. Productions of Lear can often treat Goneril and Regan interchangeably, but in Thompson and Watson’s hands they stand out as complete and distinct—the former hiding her need for her father’s approval behind a steely façade, the latter a creature of pure id discovering the pleasures of absolute power. Tobias Menzies, the prolific “that guy” of the BBC, sinks his teeth into a devilish, sadistic version of Cornwall. And if John Macmillan’s can’t quite find Edmund’s charm, the bastard is still a scorpion, nursing a barely concealed sense of rage and grievance, waiting to strike anyone who gets in his way. The cast’s sole weak spot is Andrew Scott, who plays Edgar. Like many of Shakespeare’s goody-goodies, Edgar is a dull role, even when he in disguise as the mad Poor Tom, and Scott, a gifted stage actor, overcompensates wildly, playing to the cheap seats no matter how close the camera gets.
As he’s demonstrated in earlier films like Iris and Notes on a Scandal, Eyre is a keen anatomist of domestic conflict, more drawn to pointing his camera at the nuances of human behavior than pulling back for big conceptual statements. Beyond the contemporary setting, he deploys a similar approach here, trapping the characters indoors whenever possible, like a knot of snakes in a bag. As the film progresses and England tumbles into civil war, the color leaches out of cinematographer Ben Smithard’s frames. By its end, King Lear is shot in shades of muted gray and beige, as if all vibrancy had fled the world. And why wouldn’t it flee? The world of King Lear isn’t one in which anyone should want to live, even if this film makes it a captivating place to visit for a time.