King Lear (2018)
Dir. Richard Eyre; Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson
[3.5 out of 4 stars]
In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy writes that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” and the story of King Lear and his daughters is one of the great depictions of an unhappy family. Richard Eyre, both as adaptor and director, brings William Shakespeare’s great tragedy to the screen in King Lear (2018), cutting a whole hour off the average runtime without losing the pathos at its core. Lear (Anthony Hopkins) sees the end of his life on the horizon, and so gathers his three daughters, Goneril (Emma Thompson), Regan (Emily Watson), and Cordelia (Florence Pugh), to divide his kingdom among them. In deciding how to do so, he asks each to speak of how much they love him, promising that the one who professes the greatest love will be rewarded with the greatest share of the kingdom. Regan and Goneril lavish praise on their father and so he bequeaths them swaths of land and honor, but his youngest and most beloved Cordelia refuses to play along, wanting nothing to do with the false showiness her sisters expound. The result is that Lear, too egotistical and with a mind far from its sharpest, banishes his daughter to France, telling her she shall remain “a stranger to my heart and me.” What follows is the tragedy of a father who turns to his falsely doting daughters, only to have them conspire against him, leaving him to slip further into madness, roving the countryside with his few loyal companions.
Most theatrical productions of Lear run about three hours. In adapting it to his needs, Eyre reduces it down to one hour and fifty-five minutes, a decision that leaves a great deal of the original work on the cutting room floor. The result is, as others critics have noted, a bare-bones version of the play: any scenes that do not offer substantial characterization or plot points have been erased. Eyre has put the tragedy into hyper-focus, an approach that works the vast majority of the time with only one sizable hiccup. One of the surprising results of the slimming is that it elevates the subplot of the bastard Edmund (John Macmillan) scheming to ruin his full-born brother Edgar (Andrew Scott) by tricking their father the Earl of Gloucester (Jim Broadbent), one of Lear’s most trusted advisors, to turn against Edgar, to a central plotline. In the play it is a compelling and heartbreaking narrative, but one that is at times obscured by the master narrative of Lear’s descent into madness and dejection. By removing so much of the play, the two tragedies are put on parallel paths, whereas the play favors Lear and his family. Here the two plots have nearly an equal amount of screentime. It is a deft move and accesses a different pitch of pathos due to their equivalence. Unfortunately there are moments of confusion transitioning to the last third of the movie as a result of the cuts, which leave the viewer unsure of how certain characters arrived at their destinations, but it is a small failure in the face of an otherwise skillful transferral.
With the play transformed to screenplay, Eyre and company take full advantage of their medium to toy with the way we experience the story. Whereas a theatrical production is limited to the stage to craft its setting, the chance to shoot Lear on location is not botched. Each of the castles that Lear and his daughters move through during the plot dwarf them, and in turn their humanity. These imposing rocky fortresses seem to fold in on themselves, massive war rooms and dining rooms that give way to labyrinthine hallways that seem to never end. With each twist of the knife that Goneril and Regan give, sending their father further and further down the spiral to decrepitude, Eyre shoots the castles to seem all the more imposing, rising up behind Lear as he is forced away. Adding to this feeling of unease is the color palette and lighting design. When we enter Lear’s world, it is brightly lit and swatched in the joyous colors of royalty: red sashes, blue gowns, and mahogany tables. With each scene the color seems to drip away, and the lighting becomes all the harsher. By the end, it is a monochrome world of grays and sickly whites, devoid of any warmth.
An added wrinkle of this new adaptation is also that it is set in a contemporary time period. There is no definite statement of a year or era, but in the glimpses we get of the world around each fortress there are strip malls, neighborhoods, and modern military weaponry. It is rather like the world Franz Kafka put together in The Trial: it is so much like our world that we can recognize it, but it seems just uncanny enough that we are uneasy at every turn. Nonetheless it does not simply happen in our time because it’s easier to do than staging a period piece. There is intention and commentary in the time jump, something that is put to devastating use when Lear and his companions go looking for shelter once they have been turned out in a terrible storm. In the play they come across a dejected Edgar in a hovel off the road, but here, here they stumble into a refugee camp. An assemblage of ratty tents and structures made of cardboard and scrap metal, it is a setting easily pulled from any news report on the European refugee crisis. As Lear looks around, he has a moment of dreadful clarity, looking at the state of his kingdom. He intones, “how shall your houseless heads, your unfed sides, your looped and windowed raggedness defend you from seasons such as these. Oh I have taken too little care of this.” They are the words of a ruler who discovers he has failed to protect his subjects, and they land on the viewer with the grim weight of reality.
Making this world come together is a cast of incredible performers. Each actor and actress turns in a performance worthy of exploration and praise, yet, there are those that somehow rise above the rest. Thompson somehow turns the vicious Goneril into a woman whom we empathize with, a woman who has become the power-mongering creature she is because it is the only way for her to assemble worth and mean something to her dismissive father. In one scene when he shouts and rages at her, asking the Lord to “dry up in her the organs of increase; and from her derogate body never spring a babe to honour her!” Thompson gives us glimpses of the shattered woman lying just underneath the cold and calculating mask she turns to the world. She holds her hands to her face, which alternates in expression from fearful to furious, a woman who has been traumatized and wants to get even no matter the cost. This early scene helps complicate the feelings we viewers have when she reaches her inevitable doom, as it is difficult to write her off as simply a conniving and power hungry daughter.
Standing at the opposite side of the spectrum is Pugh’s heartbreaking portrayal of Cordelia, who is only featured in the opening and closing scenes, but it is in them that we are given a glimpse into the pain that she feels at having her beloved father cast her away. It is that pain that makes his actions deplorable, and it is her utter honesty that makes us feel for her, such as with the words that had her cast out. When asked how much she loved Lear, she simply says, “you have begot me, bred me, loved me: I return those duties back as are right fit, obey you, love you, and most honour you.” Pugh loads these lines with the quiet desperation of a young woman who will play-act, but wishes all the same for her father to love her. She does not beg for power or land, and can only stand, her voice and figure shaking as she bids her family farewell. Reflecting on the scene now it is her eyes that linger in my vision, brimming with tears but set in their resolve not to give her sisters the satisfaction of truly breaking down.
At the center of it all is Hopkins’ magnificent portrayal of the Mad King himself. Hopkins has had a long and storied career of memorable performances, and this joins his turn as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991) as the only ones to shake me to my very core. Lear is a balancing act to portray. An actor must bring the self-obsessed fury of a ruler to bear within the body of an old man who is at the end of his wits but trying desperately to hold onto his world and his reality. Hopkins takes him to the height of fury, shouting, “therefore be gone without our grace, our love, our benison,” only to crumble into the shell of a creature a few scenes later, muttering “who is it that can tell me who I am?” with the desperation of a man who can no longer answer the most basic question of existence. It is all of this that leads us to the end of a primal tragedy: a father who realizes the wrong he has committed against his youngest daughter only to have her dead in his arms moments later. In uttering some of the most devastating lines Shakespeare ever wrote, Hopkins is electrifying in his grief letting each syllable lead his voice closer to giving out: “Thou’lt come no more, never, never, never, never, never!” It is a tour-de-force performance worthy of comparison to the great Shakespearean turns.
I have long counted King Lear as my favorite of Shakespeare’s works, for in the utter desolation of the tragedy there is constructed an exhilarating literary world. Lear is spiteful, harsh, and angry, but he emerges as a meditation on the end of our lives, looking back on all we have achieved and wondering what it might all have been for. With lines like “the tempest in my mind doth from my senses take all feeling else save what beats there,” I have found it hard to love a theatrical work more. The poetry of such lines and how Shakespeare aimed them at investigating the way that we age, love, and hate as our lives go on always seems to resonate differently with every watch or read. Eyre, Hopkins, Thompson, and all those who had a hand in this new adaptation have preserved the core of a remarkable work even while they dressed it up in a new look.