When you approach a black and white Russian version of one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies you could be forgiven for feeling a little bit of trepidation. I mean, that sounds like quite an ominous film. My own fears were allayed when I realised that this is a pretty special adaptation. The translation and screenplay from Boris Pasternak lay the groundwork for perhaps the most definitive cinema adaptations of the great man’s work. Kozintsev directs with a steady and intuitive hand as the action takes place in a timeless pre-history era, Dmitri Shostakovich provides the mournful score and the action is framed and photographed with exceptional clarity and beauty by Jonas Gritsius. It is accessible but at the same time there is definitely a sense of this film being somehow monolithic. It hasn’t aged in any way, it seems as close to the ideal adaptation as I could imagine.
Lear, in case you haven’t been exposed to the story, is an aging monarch who decides to split his land between his three daughters, Goneril, Reagan and the favoured youngest Cordelia. At the ceremony where this is to be finalised Cordelia refuses to enter into the spirit of things when she doesn’t praise her father as lyrically as her sisters. This sets in motion a series of events that lead to relatively awful ends for just about everyone. It is slightly more intricate than that but, y’know, I haven’t got all day.
The key aspect of Lear is performance. The role of Lear itself is regarded as one of the greatest roles an actor can play and seems to be held with a mixture of fear and awe by those who tread the boards. Perhaps it is the madness of the part that is so difficult to play. I know that Yuri Yarvet’s performance in this film is exceptional. By the end of the film, and Lear’s mournful cries of ‘Never,’ I was totally sold at the tragedy that had befell the King. It is above and beyond, it is a spellbinding piece of cinema that will stand for a very long time.
Here’s a special treat for you if you fancy watching this particular version of King Lear as it is available in its entirety on Youtube – Click Here.
Note: King Lear is listed in the Neon book 1000 Essential Movies on Video under Russian Movies.