This is a tremendous film to experience: every performance is no less than flawless; the atmosphere is a skilled blending of the sombre and the dynamic; every image photographed by the incomparable cameraman Jonas Gricius ranges from the simply striking to the outright extraordinary, raising the film onto an epic plane; and the original music score by Shostakovitch, one of 20th Century Russia's most acclaimed composers, will penetrate both your heart and soul.
Special mention must also be made of the amazing soundscapes, a positive ballet of desolate winds, looming thunders and declamatory voices which will draw you into the most intimate dialogues one moment, and knock you right back into your chair the next!
Akira Kurosawa held this film to be one of the great masterworks of the cinema so far when it was released in 1970, and it's easy to spot its many influences upon his own splendid version of the story (RAN, released in 1985).
As with his excellent `Hamlet', director Grigori Kozintsev rejects the modern tendency to treat the play as merely a work of theatre, divorced from the times that produced it. His thesis is that both Hamlet and King Lear, far from being merely tales of individual and private tragedy, reflect a significant political theme of Shakespeare's day -- what sort of ruler does the populace need? For Shakespeare, the king (or queen) was the unifying force of a nation, solely responsible for the welfare and progress of the people. The stable, responsible image he created for the ideal ruler, one who could lead a medieval country out of the dark ages (as, for instance, with Hamlet the Rennaissance man) reflected the image being promoted for Elizabeth, then queen of England.
To depict the play both as personal tragedy and temporal document Kozintsev creates a total environment for his characters to dwell in -- a vast no-man's-land of moor and marsh populated by small communities in primitive castles and clusters of farm dwellings. The film opens with a vast multitude of people, ragged, sad and silent, waiting on a hillside to hear the king's decree, and ends with these same people seen as the victim of the holocaust which the King's personal caprices have wrought. For the sake of an easy old age he has shirked his responsibility for the kingdom onto two of his three daughters (disinheriting the third, Cordelia, because she failed to satisfy his vanity); in doing so he has divided up the kingdom and set the stage for a territorial war between two ruthless, erratic, `medieval' daughters who seek only personal power.
As the kingdom (and the king) disintegrate, we see more and more beggers wandering the wastelands -- starving, wailing, some driven mad by the horrors of living in a medieval world. As the disintegration progresses, more and more nobles, including the king himself, find their lots thrown in with those of the beggers and the insane. Only Cordelia, who has sufficient maturity, stability and intellectual refinement, is capable of trying to weld the kingdom back into a unified land -- but Shakespeare's outcome is bleak, suggesting that, should medievalism ever get a hold of the land, then even the best attempts to save it may not be enough.
This is a good resource for OU study on Shakespeare Text & Performance, but heavy going. I would not recommend it for ordinary viewing unless you are into film history or Shakespeare in a big way as it takes some concentration to follow the subtitles and shadowy production.