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The Life and Death of King John (1984) (TV) is an excellent version of one of Shakespeare's lesser-known plays. The movie was directed by David Giles for the BBC.
Each of us has a favorite Shakespeare play--Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth, Henry V, etc. My guess is that if you asked a thousand people which is their favorite Shakespeare play, not one would say King John. In fact, it's probably not in anyone's top ten. However, it's still in the Shakespeare canon, so, naturally, it has moments of brilliance.
As with all of the BBC Shakespeare plays, King John has a solid cast, good costumes, and minimal scenery. Crowd scenes and battle scenes aren't included--too expensive. (Remember that they weren't included in Shakespeare's day either, for the same reason.)
So, what we see--and how much we enjoy it--depends on our understanding that this is a strong production of one of Shakespeare's lesser plays. I enjoyed the film, because to my way of thinking it's a faithful representation of what Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote it.
Leonard Rossiter does good work as King John, who always lives in the shadow of his slain brother, Richard the Lion-Hearted. Mary Morris is excellent as John's mother, Queen Elinor, who is as tough as nails. Claire Bloom gives a heart-rending portrayal of Lady Constance, mother of the true heir to the throne of England. (John is basically a usurper, but he has the crown, and will fight to keep it.)
However, for me, top acting honors go to George Costigan as Philip (called The Bastard) who is the out-of-wedlock son of Richard the Lion-Hearted. Philip not only participates in most of the important scenes of the play, but he also speaks directly to us, the audience, taking us into his confidence the way Richard III does. Costigan's Philip is handsome, brash, intelligent, and confident. King John recognizes this, and so do we.
The only direct criticism I have of the film is the shortening of a key scene. All directors cut something from Shakespeare's text, but director Giles has opted to cut parts of the dungeon scene. The dungeon scene is one of the emotional high points of the play, and we deserve to hear every word of it.
In summary, this is a solid version of one of Shakespeare's lesser plays. I recommend it because, even when Shakespeare isn't at the top of his form, his plays are still so well-written that they're worth watching.
King John--as is the case of all the BBC productions--was made for TV, so it works well on the small screen, which is how we saw it. I suggest finding it and viewing it.
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