King Lear - BBC Shakespeare Collection  [DVD]
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The BBC version of one of Shakespeare's most celebrated plays. Part of a series of BBC Shakespeare productions, with Michael Horden as the vain and blinkered King.
First screened in 1982, this timeless Shakespeare story of an ageing King who decides to divide his Kingdom between his three daughters stars Michael Hordern as Lear, with Brenda Blethyn as Cordelia, Gillian Barge as Goneril, Penelope Wilton as Regan, Michael Kitchen as Edmund and Anton Lesser as Edgar.
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One of the first things one notices is the look of the production. Painterly is the word. There are very few long shots, most of the three hours consists of close-ups
or groups of people confined in meagre spaces, which is exactly right for this play about inner worlds of madness, feigned madness, blindness, backstabbing, and villainous scheming. Occasionally the space opens up, as in the non-explicit - and therefore much more effectively unsettling - scene of Gloucester`s blinding. Penelope Wilton`s gleaming-eyed, coolly appraising Regan in this scene is brilliant, and the scarier for its restraint. She is one of many reasons to see this Lear.
Another is of course the late Sir Michael Hordern (70 at the time) as the maddened king, who only has himself - as well as two conniving, sycophantic daughters - to blame. He embodies the raging, noble/pitiful king in exile more completely than any actor I`ve seen in the role, even Scofield. There is a husky musicality to Hordern`s voice and a frail cragginess to his face which help show the dogged maleness of Lear while exposing all too cruelly the king`s fragility of mind and, eventually, body. His speaking of the lines is pitch-perfect throughout, and he`s heartbreaking for being so unsentimental, so angrily stoic.
Other performances of note are a deadpan John Bird (who would have thought?) as the
increasingly disillusioned husband to Gillian Barge`s silkily insinuating Goneril. He manages to be drily amusing, and finally rather touching, in a role which some actors might find a little thankless.
One of Britain`s most versatlile actors, Anton Lesser, plays the key role of Edgar to the hilt. He is a wonderful actor to watch, blessed with what I can only call a beautiful face, all compassionate eyes and bland innocence. (Since then, Lesser has played his fair share of villains and shady types, always to good effect.)
Brenda Blethyn looks and sounds radiant as a plain-speaking, exceedingly pretty Cordelia, and her final scenes with Lear are suitably heart-rending.
Michael Kitchen was and is an odd actor. He seems at once naturalistic and mannered.
It works here, as the most languid, passive Edmund I`ve ever come across. He appears to fall into villainy almost out of apathy, and the vague sense of a chip somewhere on his shoulder, but it works - as does so much in this inventive production - since it makes you listen to what he says, not merely to his rage and jealousy. His occasional looks to camera are almost Frankie Howerd-like (or David Brent-like!) in their conspiratorial slyness.
Burly, bullish John Shrapnel is all one could wish as upright, loyal Kent, while the dynamic, vocally resourceful Norman Rodway is terrific as Gloucester; a superb verse-speaker and an endlessly creative actor.
Frank Middlemass is a full-on Fool, an elderly mirror-image to Lear, in white-face that is, tellingly, washed off in the storm, as of course it would be. But how many directors would notice such a detail? Miller`s attentiveness is everywhere in this tremendous, obviously low-budget version of Shakespeare`s dramatic Everest.
Echoes, repeated words & phrases, mirror-images, abound. This is Shakespeare, ever alive to such resonances, but it is also Miller. The way characters are grouped, often huddled as in the final tragic tableau, is always for a reason, with pairs of characters acting as mirrors to each other, or one actor sliding out of view as another takes his/her place. Sets are kept to a (very) bare minimum, costumes are both exuberant in their design and almost monochrome in their shading. The whole thing has a black-white-and-grey look, but that`s fine because the colour in the language is brought out by this hand-picked cast with the greatest of care and attention to the slightest detail. Once or twice a word is mis-said (no retakes?) but you hardly notice, and it even adds to a sense of life on the hoof in this perilous landscape.
There is nothing laboured or unimaginative in this benchmark production - and let`s remind ourselves that the BBC were hardly likely to chuck too much money at their Shakespeare marathon back then, however much vaunted it was - at least when it was announced, after which they gradually seemed to lose interest.
Miller makes great use of less. He concentrates on the actors and the emotional course of the play, allowing relentless close-ups to show what would be broader on a theatre stage.
It works wonders.
For the visual style of the piece (by which I mean the lighting and the costumes), it struck me that Miller had taken much from the work of two artists - Velasquez and Caravaggio. They were both good choices.
Beyond the "Subtitles" and "Scene Selection" options, the DVD has no extras.
Being 18, I have grown up with movies which feed you the story: movies where you don't really have to think too hard. This BBC adaptation of King Lear is not one of those movies. You have to work at it, you've got to listen, you've got to think pretty hard the whole way through. I watched the whole film in three separate instalments, which is probably the best way to do it unless you've got lots of stamina.
It's still an absolutely fantastic film, and very true to the text. In many ways, it is exactly as I imagine it, except for the eerie bland setting.
Michael Hordern is a superb Lear. It's an immensely difficult role, one of the most complex in all of Shakespeare - finding a balance between strength and weakness is seemingly impossible, but Hodern pulls it off with surprising talent, given his age.
However, I think that Gillian Barge and Penelope Wilton steal the show as Goneril and Regan. The pair of them portray the vicious sisters so convincingly that their performances alone make this film well worth seeing. Their cruelty and greed is conveyed which a calibre of acting that has sadly been lost in this generation of film. Furthermore, you can actually feel bonds between these two sisters, which makes the whole film a lot more real.
A number of scenes deserve special mention. Gloucester's blinding is bloody spectacular. His tortured screams were so realistic that I wanted to murder Wilton in revenge, who played Regan here with pure malice.
The final scene was also fabulous, even achieving suspense and terror - the brothers' fatal duel, the wicked sisters' inevitable deaths, and - most of all - Lear's pitiful, heart-wrenching entrance holding Cordelia dead in his arms. This is made all the more horrific by the raw rope marks around Cordelia's neck.
I could go on forever about this movie but I won't, just take my word for it. But don't watch it if you're after an easy viewing experience. Be prepared to work at this film. But it's fantastic so well worth it, I think.
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