Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Olde Review: King Lear (1971)

This was part of a series of reviews of the ASUW Film series back in the '70's. Except for some punctuation, I haven't changed anything from the way it was presented, giving the kid I was back in the '70's a bit of a break. Any stray thoughts and updates I've included with the inevitable asterisked post-scripts.

This Friday's films in 130 Kane are the Northwest Premiere of Peter Brook's King Lear and Roman Polanski's MacBeth, and for those of you who have never had an English course cross your academic path, these are recently filmed interpretations of two of Shakespeare's tragedies.

King Lear (Peter Brook, 1971) Peter Brook is one of those eccentric geniuses in our artistic society of whom it is supposedly required to say that "if he had never been born, we would've had to invent him." That's something of an easy out for critics who don't know enough to know what to praise about the man.

What there is to praise in the film is the play, of course. That's a given. Also a given is the fact that film has abandoned its formerly sterile view of past conditions* to show us the squalor of the times we have left behind us. Brook's interpretation of the squalor of "
King Lear's" time is to set it in the dead of winter and the snow mixing with mud and sand sets the dramatic mood and provides a proper backdrop for the icy acting by the principles.



In the initial stages of the film, Brook keeps the direction rigidly under control, leaving little room for the actors to full express their characters, giving the audience a feeling of claustrophobia--such is the confinement of Brook's images. But, as those familiar with "Lear" know, Lear's on-coming madness brings on a steady deterioration of that control; the camera can't contain the performers or the characters, and the onslaught of Lear's insanity is a thorough ripping apart of the control, cataclysmic in intensity, totally destroying what was before. And though it is certainly different from my expectations--my ideas--of how that scene should be handled, my gut reaction to the sequence is that it is right, for we tangibly feel the ripping of Lear's psyche for the film and the film's techniques we have seen before are also ripped apart and we are taken to new territory, just as Lear is.


When studying Shakespeare--when appreciating Shakespeare--I find the best thing I can do is to read it line by line, concentrating on each, finding its independent meaning and then its contextual meaning. Brook does something similar here. In a monologue he will (editorially) isolate phrases, though at times it is distracting, and cuts the flow of the total speech. I am sure it is something of a help to those unfamiliar with "Lear." Overall, it is an eccentric version of (the play), but one, at least, that I can live with.


Broadcast on KCMU-FM November 18th and 19th, 1975


Weird review. It smacks of insecurity being hidden by brio. But I had seen a couple versions of "Lear" and had read it in High School and College, so I was "familiar" with it, probably more so than the other plays, with the exception of "Julius Caesar." Still, it's an odd tone to set for a review--there's too much "me" in it. I was no Shakespeare expert then, nor am I now.

And Brook's technique for Lear was very much in keeping with his stage style. He famously said, "I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage." Even more so with film. Take any expanse of space and put a frame around it and you have a film, even if it's nothing but a black background with a face in front of it. And the thing about film is, there doesn't have to be a strict adherence to the concept of "stage."
Olivier staged his Hamlet in a labyrinth of stages. He started his film of Henry V on a stage and opened it up to the outside world later in the film. Welles ignored any rules: his Othello was filmed in such a catch-as-catch-can manner (finaciers bailing) that he would shoot one side of a conversation in one country and shoot the over-the-shoulder reply in another. "All the world's a stage," indeed.


The other thing about Brook's Lear is the pedigree of the actors. One of those actors I always enjoy watching is
Paul Scofield--winner of the Oscar for playing Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons--he'll show up later this week in another reviewed Shakespeare film. He plays Lear here; first, as a cruel, unfeeling martinet of a King, and lastly, as a pathetic, broken old man--off-putting and sad, but always with great stores of power. Scofield never lets you forget that though Lear is many things, he was always King for a reason. Jack McGowran plays The Fool. Cyral Cusack plays Albany and Patrick Magee plays Cornwall. Great cast. Maybe not stars, but extraordinarily powerful stage actors.

Someone's always staging Lear; it's the K2 of parts for older actors. Next year we're going to be seeing two productions: PBS will (supposedly, at this point)
show a video production of Sir Ian McKellan's Lear, and a new filmed version is due in a year, with Sir Anthony Hopkins as Lear...and as his daughters, the triple threat of Keira Knightley, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Naomi Watts. I hope they have enough sense to have Paltrow play Cordelia and Knightley one of the cruel sisters. (Update: No, Knightley will play Cordelia, Regan will be played by Paltrow, and Watts will play Goneril--ah, well!).


Update on the update: McKellan's version was made. The Hopkins was not.



* A throw-back to the stage-origins of the plays. Lately, Shakespeare has been getting gritty and grimy.

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