*. In my notes on Grigori Kozintsev’s 1964 Hamlet I said it was a production that did a lot of little things well but was hit-and-miss on a few of the big things. I think his King Lear is equally good on the little things and only really muffs one big scene, which is the always difficult storm on the heath. There’s a great use of landscape throughout, and the heath looks like the surface of the moon, but the storm isn’t that impressive and the scene is undone by way of a distracting and totally unnecessary crane shot. Though I have to say that is one barren heath!
*. But first a checklist of the things I liked. Some of this might have been fairly routine stage business at the time, like Goneril wielding a whip when she confronts her husband Albany or, even better, Regan backing away in horror from the dying Cornwall when he asks her to give him her arm in support. Sorry Cornwall, but she’s already moving on! I loved it.
*. Other little things that show up big on screen come by way of quiet expressions. Regimantas Adomaitis plays Edmund and he’s very good. Watch for the subtle look of pain on his face in that opening scene where his father makes a joke out of his birth. Or notice the way Goneril looks at Lear as he’s sleeping across from her in the carriage and she pulls a blanket over him. That’s a woman with a lot on her mind (and it’s another great performance).
*. Then there are the things only a movie can do. Of course some of these are big things, like the battle scenes. You can always count on the Russians for delivering when it comes to epic battle scenes. But Kozintsev perfectly balances these big battles with the human journey of the major characters, much like Tolken did in Lord of the Rings. We get the sense of people whose tragic destinies are caught up in a larger tide of events. This is brilliantly captured in the scene where Lear is carried on a stretcher downstream past some rough water. That’s a perfect parallel. And elsewhere you get the same feeling of the war being a part of the landscape as well as a vital backdrop to the story, the characters swept along by its power in remarkable dolly shots that seem to almost ignore them.
*. I wonder how many directors at the time had made Poor Tom one of a whole traveling troop of refugees, with the hovel turning into a hostel for the homeless. I don’t remember seeing it played like that way anywhere else, but I thought it worked well here.
*. Other nice movie touches include the opening scene, which has a small army of peasants coming to Lear’s castle to watch the show. It’s sort of like the audience gathering at the Globe in Olivier’s Henry V. Then the first appearance of Lear has him screwing around with a chambermaid, underlining what an old fool he is. To turn to stronger stuff, Gloucester’s calls to Edmund as he’s getting blinded are answered by a cut to Goneril’s bedroom, where Edmund can hear his dad screaming just as he’s pulling on his pants after servicing her. And marvel at the way Cordelia is revealed at the end hanging from the battlements. Stark, and tremendously effective.
*. You’ll have gathered by now that I’m a big fan of this film. I think I was smiling in wonder and nodding my head throughout the whole thing. I don’t think there are many creative decisions that go wrong. Having the Fool pipe us out at the end made perfect sense, for example, even though the character had disappeared from the play. And while Jüri Järvet’s voice was dubbed as Lear, he’s such a striking visual presence, with the wildest hair-do since Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein, that you hardly notice (especially if you’re reading subtitles). It’s a great performance, capturing the full sense of an old man in ruins.
*. The rest of the cast are excellent too. Valentina Shendrikova debuts as Cordelia, and she’s stunning. Goneril and Regan look like they could eat her for breakfast. That’s Donatas Banionis, who you’ll remember as Kris Kelvin in Solaris, playing Albany, and he fits the part perfectly with those sad eyes but sense of inner strength (his voice is dubbed as well). I’ve mentioned Adomaitis as being excellent, and he’s complemented nicely by Leonhard Merzin as Edgar. When we see Edgar stalking toward his revenge it’s hard not to think of Mandy Patinkin’s Inigo Montoya. You almost expect him to say “You killed my father. Prepare to die” at the end.
*. The play was set in pagan Britain, but it feels totally at home in Orthodox Russia. It also feels at home in black and white. Kozintsev was making this movie at the same time Peter Brook was making his King Lear and they corresponded with each other while filming. They were on to something.
*. King Lear is a giant, spectacular, sometimes messy play and this is a film version that fully does it credit. It may even be my favourite film adaptation, and the fact that it stands alongside such versions as Brook’s Lear and Kurosawa’s Ran is all the argument you need for Shakespeare as a universal genius.