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William Shakespeare’s King Lear may be one of the best tragedies ever written. Grigori Kozintsev’s King Lear is a powerful adaptation, but it can be difficult cinema if you don’t know what you’re getting into.

Tigers, Not Daughters

It was his eyes that won Järvet the part
It was his eyes that won Järvet the part

King Lear has three daughters: Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. Rather than have his children fighting for his lands after his death, he decides to divvy their inheritance while he’s still alive. He asks his daughters to speak their love for him, with the most eloquent speeches earning the best portions of the kingdom. Goneril and Regan dutifully suck up to their father, but Cordelia won’t play that game. Enraged, Lear disinherits her.

Now homeless but sill the king, Lear sets out to split his remaining years between his two remaining daughters. But now that Goneril and Regan have their father’s property, they have little use for him. Unlike Cordelia, they don’t actually love their father; they just knew how to stroke his ego when he asked.

Lear realizes that he is not welcome anywhere in his own kingdom. The French are mounting an invasion, but his daughters are so caught up in playing politics that it is clear the kingdom itself is doomed. Wandering, lost, and destitute, King Lear witnesses the demise of his kingdom, his family, and his legacy.

Every Inch a King

This Russian adaptation is follows Hamlet by five years, and it’s made by the same three artists. Kozintsev had been making movies since the 1920s. Dmitri Shastakovich is one of the great composers of the 20th century. And although English audiences may fail to appreciate his contribution, Boris Pasternak, the novelist who wrote Dr. Zhivago, adapted the play.

The imagery was more striking in Hamlet, but King Lear still packs a visual wallop. King Lear is a much brighter film — more scenes take place outdoors in the light of day — but that’s not to say it’s a more upbeat film. Cold, stone castles, are set amidst barren, hostile landscapes. The settings are as important as the characters, and often times more powerful.

Shastakovich’s music is powerful, too. It is simple and strong, not declarative, but anguished. I wish more movies had interesting scores from modern composers, and not symphonic, smooth, perfect pap. Not to denigrate the hardworking musicians in Hollywood, but rarely do movie soundtracks offer you a raw and powerful vision. More often than not, a score is intended to go unnoticed, rather than to actively add to the film.

That Way Madness Lies

Jüri Järvet plays Lear as a spry and sprightly old man with unruly hair and an elfin grin. (As Peter Sellars mentions on the DVD extra, Järvet is an Estonian — an ethnic minority in Russia, which might have been as surprising as an African-American Lear in the U.S.) He is short in stature, hardly a commanding figure, which is an inspired choice for a king who begins the play by stepping down from the throne. As Cordelia, Valentina Shendrikova has a simple, honest beauty that leaps off the screen, especially compared to her married, harried, and more materialistic sisters.

The film is shot in black and white, which means that lighting can give the film some subliminal power. On the DVD, Sellars says that there are extreme closeups, but that’s not actually true. You might get that impression, though from the lighting, which will sometimes pick out a character’s face, bringing it to the foreground and letting the background fall away.

In fact, it is hard to fault the movie for anything. And yet, there are few people I’d recommend King Lear to.

Shakespearean dialogue can be hard to pick up. Often I’ll need to hear a play for fifteen minutes before I get used to hearing the language. Reading it in the subtitles makes it that much harder, especially when your brain has to filter the spoken Russian (and it’s really distracting when the characters remind you that the setting is England!). Also, the Soviet cinema can be a bit dry. As competent as the craft is, it all feels a bit distant. King Lear is easier to appreciate than to like.

After watching the film once, I thought that maybe this King Lear just wasn’t as good as Hamlet. But after watching the interview with Sellars, I gained a new appreciation for the film. Sellars introduced some history and some subtext that were not obvious to this casual observer. Were I to watch the film again and again, I think it would grow on me.

DVD Extras

A booklet with two essays is included in the package. The first essay is a repeat of what you will find in the Hamlet DVD’s booklet. It covers the three artists behind these films. The second essay is excerpted from Kozintsev’s book about King Lear (apparently it was Järvet’s eyes that won him the role).

There is only one extra feature on the DVD itself, but it is very good. For about an hour, American theatrical director Peter Sellars talks about King Lear, Kozintsev, Pasternak, and Shastakovich.

If you haven’t seen him before, Sellars makes a flamboyant first impression. With a vertical hairdo, a loud paisley shirt, and a string of wooden beads, he’s a little hard to take seriously at first. In the first fifteen minutes of the interview, he paints a superficial picture of Russian history that made me think the whole interview would be a waste.

But later in the interview, Sellars goes into more depth, revealing that he really does know his Russian history. Not only that, he knows the three artists behind King Lear well. He makes his most interesting comments on Shastakovich, hypothesizing about the meaning behind the simplicity and boldness of the score.

He also eloquently puts the film in its post-Stalinist context, drawing parallels between the nightmare that was Stalinist Russia, and the future of King Lear’s own nation. Lear himself dooms his own life, his lineage, and his heritage. No barbarians bring about Lear’s fall; it’s his own doing. Likewise, Russia has no one else to blame for the purges and the show trials. Their tragedy is of their own making.

Picture and Sound

The picture quality is outstanding. Looking for scratches and dust, I could hardly spot any. The source material must have been pristine. The DVD is not enhanced for 16:9 televisions, which is my only complaint. The sound quality is very good. The soundtrack appears to be 2-channel stereo.

How to Use This DVD

First, know your Lear. Reading Shakespearean subtitles while listening to Russian is not the way to learn this play. Second, watch the entire Peter Sellars interview before you watch the movie (if an hour seems like a long time, watch it at 1.4x speed like I did). Knowing some 20th century Russian history wouldn’t hurt, either, but even if you only know as much as Sellars gives you, you’ll have a deeper appreciation of the film.