The Shakespeare tragedy that gave us the expression "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child." King Lear has not one but two ungrateful children, and it's ... See full summary »
The Shakespeare tragedy that gave us the expression "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child." King Lear has not one but two ungrateful children, and it's especially galling because he turned over his entire kingdom to them. Paul Scofeld is an ancient, imposing shell of a Lear tormented by his too-long life as well as by daughters he calls "untatural hags." At one point, the king looks his eldest daughter, Goneril (Ireme Worth), straight in the eye and declares, "Thou art a boil, a plague-sore, of embossed carbuncle in my corrupted blood." These are the troubles not even the best-trained family counselor could ever hope to resolve. Written by
What's good: Alan Webb's Gloucester and Jack MacGowran's Fool both threaten to steal the picture. Webb is immensely touching in his attempted suicide, but then, I have trouble thinking of a bad Gloucester. Cyril Cusack as Albany and Tom Fleming as Kent should also be praised, and Patrick Magee is creepy as ever as Cornwall.
Henning Kristiansen's cinematography is stunning, rendering Jutland in winter the most inhospitable Learscape ever, and this is the same fellow who shot the lush "Babette's Feast" in the same general location! When Lear and friends are outside being battered by the storm, we see the ungrateful villains inside basking in the warmth of a gigantic roaring fireplace. The visual contrast has never been greater. When Poor Tom's cold, he's really cold in real snow, not just clasping himself and shivering on cue.
Peter Brook's productions often involve wholesale cuts and rearrangements, plus hefty doses of non-authorial content. Yes, this Lear is cut to the bone, the style owes much to Bergman, Beckett, Brecht, etc.
The criminal waste is that Paul Scofield was a major Lear of his generation, and it's gutted here. His magnificent voice is thinned out to a thread, and much of the time the character is distant, veiled and under-energized. His disintegration arouses pity, but no audience involvement. We watch him die from a million miles away, and lose more than we gain with this application of alienation technique.
By the same token, Irene Worth's whispered Goneril is not the volcano we want. For example, she is incapable of expressing lust for Edmund, and that's a crucial omission, not in the text, but in the performance. Two fine actors are caught at considerably less than their best, giving the director what he wanted.
The energy level all around is a bit low, which kills much of what remains of Shakespeare's language, but what really hurts is the leaden pace. Considering half the play is missing, we start slowly, and after Gloucester hits the beach, grind to a complete halt. Entropy is total. Even with the text gutted and filleted, the last half hour of the film feels longer than many complete plays.
For DVD versions with complete texts, don't overlook Jonathan Miller's neurologically-informed production for the BBC with Michael Hordern and Brenda Blethyn. The more mainstream, star-studded Olivier video is an automatic choice for many.
However, another abbreviated version directed by Peter Brook features perhaps the best reading of Shakespeare's Lear of them all, from Orson Welles. This 90-minute condensation from the early days of live television also features Alan Badel, Beatrice Straight and Micheal MacLiammoir. First you must get past the resourceful but limited visuals, two cameras in a single studio running the whole play live without a break. The reward is that no one, no one does Lear's poetry more clearly, simply, powerfully and beautifully than Orson Welles.
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