King Lear DVD
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Directed by Grigori Kozintsev
Produced in 1971
Main Language - Russian with English subtitles
Ranking alongside Orson Welles and Akira Kurosawa as one of the cinema's greatest Shakespeare adapters, Grigori Kozintsev had previously staged Hamlet and King Lear in the theatre, but was pushing sixty when he felt confident enough to translate the first of these to the screen, by which time he'd already written a book on the subject.
Decades of experience dating back to the silent era (when he was a leader of the Soviet film avant-garde) produced a film of overwhelming visual impact: Elsinore Castle is a vast granite edifice seemingly hewn from the wave-blasted rocks, the ghost is a terrifyingly huge figure clad in black armour, while Anastasiya Vertinskaya's Ophelia is so fragile she barely looks as though she'll last till the end of each scene, never mind the drama as a whole.
Innokenty Smoktunovsky, the Soviet Union's closest equivalent to Laurence Olivier, is an unusually firm-purposed Hamlet, helped here by an adaptation that intelligently truncates the text almost by half, but without ever losing sense of the dramatic and psychological structure (Peter Brook was one of the film's many admirers). King Lear, made two years before Kozintsev's death, is equally intelligent, set in a grim universe of mud and torrential rain that's closer to Andrei Rublev than the RSC, with the wiry Yuri Yarvet (familiar from Tarkovsky's Solaris) brilliantly catching the old king's growing madness and despair.
Both films are based on Boris Pasternak's translations, shot in resplendent black-and-white widescreen (a deliberate artistic choice by 1971, but this Lear is unimaginable in colour) and scored by Dmitri Shostakovich - the latter element a particular coup given that the great composer had long since abandoned the screen for the concert hall. But he made an exception for his old friend and comrade-in-art (he and Kozintsev first collaborated in the 1920s), with spellbinding results. The score for Hamlet is electrifying, the ghost's appearance heralded by a spine-chillingly sinister fanfare, its speech underscored by a relentless timpani throb. Meanwhile, Lear has all the spare and desolate bleakness of the late string quartets, the Fool's pipe as much a musical as physical presence.
Michael Brooke on 21st September 2011
Author of 135 reviews
King Lear (Yuri Yarvet) retires from his throne. His decision to divide his kingdom among his elder daughters, over the warnings of his youngest Cordelia, sparks off a chain of events that engulfs the entire countryside. Lear's final days are marked by dissension, internecine conflict and terrible violence. Humiliated and banished by his daughters, the King wanders the countryside like a beggar, accompanied by his Fool and a few faithful servants. Driven mad by despair, Lear's megalomania consumes him to the point of blindness.
No one has illustrated King Lear's dizzying fall from power with greater visual force than Grigori Kozintsev. No one has played the king on screen with more affecting restraint than Yuri Yarvet. Austerely photographed in black and white widescreen, the director's epic treatment makes us follow the tale of one man and his daughters in tandem with a more political story, about a king's relationship to the common people, yet the director's great humanity, some unforgettable performances and Shostakovich's magnificent score ensure that the family tragedy is not obscured by Communist ideology.
Working with a translation from Nobel Laureate Boris Pasternak, Kozintsev - in the final film of his career - fashions a fitting twilight work; achieving in this harsh tale of mortality and power, a tranquility in form and assurance of vision.
Publisher: Mr Bongo
Length: 132 mins
Cat No: MRBDVD040
Format: DVD B&W
- Please note that this widescreen film has fixed subtitles beneath the picture so if you want the film to fill a widescreen TV and still have subtitles visible then the picture will be stretched