TV-14 for the ol' fashioned thumb gouge. What? I'm spoiling something? It's Shakespeare! You had your chance. It's not like the story hasn't been around. You know what? Lots of people die. They die horrible death. There's violence and weird incestual kiss. Just all kinds of stuff. Regardless, TV-14.
DIRECTOR: Richard Eyre
I just podcasted about this. Keep an eye on this space (or literallyanything.net) for that information. But you'll be hearing some of this stuff twice. This space is mostly devoted to my more nuanced thoughts on King Lear. And I'll be honest. King Lear is the one that fell through the cracks for me. I never had this as part of a class or anything. I know a lot of Shakespeare. You'll have to trust me. It's something I nerd out on. But you'd think that I'd get Lear at one time or another. Nope. It never happened. I got some of the adaptations and modernizations, but I never actually got Lear before this point. So this is a unique situation for me. I have to not only critique and analyze a movie, but I have to do it from a fresh perspective on a story.
And that brings me to my first point. I don't know King Lear enough to watch this movie in isolation. I had to do a ton of reading early in the movie. The thing about this movie is that I had to look up motivations. King Lear tends to be a four hour production. This version is less than two. There's a reason for that. A) Short movies are the best. And B), this movie tries to make the movie as grounded and modern and political as possible. So to do that, it amputated anything that didn't exactly fit within that mission statement. Shakespeare in the modern era has this problem. It's so cool to transport a classic story with a universal theme into another era. The temptation is that it mostly works. It actually works too well. But there are moments. Oh, boy-oh-boy, there are moments. These moments really kill it. King Lear tries simply to remove these moments. They do a pretty good job, but by removing these small moments, far larger moments are thereby affected. From what I read, King Lear is mostly about elder abuse. The story is about daughters who do not love their father causing mental damage to a dying old man. They treat him poorly so he leaves their homes. This is central to the plot. We have a daughter who loves him and two daughters who don't. The two daughters gain power of his estate by claiming that they love him the most and then want nothing but to be rid of him. Because they are so rude to him, he loses his mind and that's the story. But this is a political version. The story is grafted to contemporary London. It is, genre-wise, a political story. But the old one only uses politics as a setting. It is much more about family and that's what the movie kind of gets wrong. This adaptation of King Lear really becomes more about dementia. The two daughters only do him small slights. Honestly, they become evil after Lear falls into his early stages of madness. That's really confusing. We know that the sisters are evil, but that's just because of the mise en scene and performance styles. That's a huge problem. I wonder if I would have thought of this when I was watching the Ethan Hawke Hamlet, which is also pretty darn short.
Really, this is great to watch for production value and acting. The movie isn't really marketing itself to anyone but the Shakespeare fan. Watching this from fresh eyes, I could see all of the cracks in the story. But I still really enjoyed it. Honestly, this might have been the most flawed movie that I've seen in a while that I've still absolutely loved. I've had this theory for a while that Anthony Hopkins might not be the amazing actor that I've always thought that he was. I've just noticed that Hopkins is always playing Hopkins. It's just that Hopkins himself is compelling to watch. I know that this is a type of acting. I have a theatre degree. You can tell that I have a theatre degree because I spell it with an "-re" instead of an "-er". But I might have to back that up a little bit because Lear is a great character for him. It's this role that lets him get bombastic and play these different levels. Lear can easily be a screaming role. It's about madness and the temptation to go big has to be constantly present. There's a little bit of overyelling in this one, but Hopkins manages to make Lear a character who is sadly losing his mind. It reminds me of this character who is fighting with dementia. Again, I don't love that it seems so removed from the sisters' sins, but from a performance perspective, that becomes really interesting. He really is convincing. Part of that comes from the entire building of Lear. He looks like everyone's grandfather. We're not talking about Uncle Ben. That's the grandparent we've been sold in Hollywood. Anthony Hopkins looks frail. He looks like someone who is desperate to have control over an uncontrollable life. It just so happens that Lear is a monarch. But he humanizes this role. Lear is not removed from the story. He makes Lear, appropriately, the center of the story. I'm actually applauding that Hopkins is stealing every scene. I'm not saying that the other actors aren't great. I'm going to get into that. They are absolutely stunning. But no one really holds a candle to Hopkins in this one. I think that the director wanted it that way. There's this amazing cast and a really complex plot, but that all really seems secondary to focusing on one man and the fact that he is losing his mind over the course of two hours. I applaud that and sneer at it simultaneously.
Again, the rest of the cast is amazing. Watch those opening credits and tell me that you aren't wildly impressed. The opening shot made me think that this film was inspired by Steven Moffat's Sherlock. It didn't help that I noticed Andrew Scott in the opening credits after that. For a second, I was worried that he didn't have too big of a part, but he really gets the second best performance in the film. I saw a "Popular on Facebook" clip of Scott doing "To be or not to be" from Hamlet and I knew that I wanted to see him do more Shakespeare. While I don't think I got chills from King Lear like I did from that Facebook clip, he is still absolutely marvelous. He has a lot of moments that kind of made me want to giggle if I took them out of context. But Scott almost embraced the more risky stuff. If I was an actor, I would have been terrified by what the director would put me through. But Scott not only makes it works, he makes the scene better with his performance. Those choices go from dangerous to brilliant. He portrays homeless insanity in the weirdest way, but it is so compelling. Again, there is some damage to these moments when it comes to how truncated this version of Lear was. We don't get a lot of Edgar's choices when it comes to his father because there is so much editing going on there. The odd thing is that it is such a compelling part of the entire story. Then there's the genius element of pairing him with Jim Broadbent as Glouchester. I get a little moment of joy whenever I see Jim Broadbent in stuff. I'm shameless because he plays a lot of parts like he plays Glouchester. He's a character actor and we keep seeing that character. But that character makes a lot of sense with Glouchester. Also, eyeballs. I'm just saying. Eye. Balls. But Scott and Broadbent almost have their own little play outside of everything that is going on in the story. I'm not the first person to ever say the following cliche, but there are only fifteen British actors and every single one of them seems to be in this movie. (Accept my hyperbole before you start nitpicking.) I don't think anyone is miscast, but I also feel like I have to point out Emma Thompson and Emily Watson. While their part is completely decimated by a movie that focuses too much on character and not enough on plot. Christopher Eccleston is also in it. I want to point him out because he was the Doctor, but he's not in the movie a ton and he's just fine.
I have to kind of comment on Shakespeare because this is my first time experiencing King Lear. The "not recognizing disguises" trope really doesn't work in Lear as it might with other Shakespeares, mainly because of the trope of sightlessness. When we are told that people are in disguise, we simply have to accept that other characters wouldn't recognize them. But Glouchester loses his eyes. He recognizes Lear from his voice, but doesn't recognize the voice of his own son. I know that Scott does a voice for a lot of it, but he kind of abandons that voice as the story progresses. Also, Kent is just absurd that no one recognizes him. There's a entire montage of Kent shaving his hair and his beard, but he looks the exact same. It's borderline silly. It's used twice. In the same play. I know that there's probably a crazier record in the Shakespeareiverse, but I don't love it, especially in a tragedy.
So I like King Lear. This production was good enough to make me want to really study Lear. I want to see a full production. I want to straight up read it. I want to have a class that is patient enough to study it. The performances are excellent. The tone is absolutely fabulous. I mean, it's not functional as a movie on its own, but I'm oddly forgiving of that this time. Regardless, I had a really good time with this and I'd love to see more. For once, I advocate for a four-hour director's cut.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.