KING LEAR (2008) REVIEW
Sir Ian McKellen, Jonathan Hyde, Sylvester McCoy, Frances Barber, Monica Dolan, Romola Cara, Frances Barber, William Gaunt, Ben Meyjes.
Directors—Sir Trevor Nunn
Based on a revival staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, Melbourne, New York and London’s West End, King Lear is Shakespeare’s retelling of the legend of The Leir of Britain, and often considered one of the greatest tragedies the bard ever wrote.
After many years of ruling as the King of Britain, the childish and self-centred King Lear decides that it’s time to hand over his crown to one of his three daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. (Or at least, hand over half of his crown so that he can still have some sort of power over the kingdom!) But upon examining his daughter’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as the love for their own father, Lear changes his mind and concludes that none of them are worthy on the royal throne. (Not even his favourite and youngest daughter, Cordelia!)
Seeing that they’ll never gain power by being the king’s children, the oldest daughters, Goneril and Regan, hatch a plan to overthrow the king and cease his power. When the daughter’s put their plan into force (with the help of the king’s backstabbing army), Lear is driven away from his castle and forced on the run, stumbling through the muddy countryside during a journey that will lead to his decent into insanity.
With accomplished director Sir Trevor Nunn (of Cats and Les Miserables fame) at the helm, this version of King Lear is really an amazing production to watch. Rather than making this a blockbuster with expensive locations and a Hollywood screenplay (like most stage productions of the bard’s work that have been adapted between 1995 to now), this interpretation of the play stays true to the spirit of the theatre, and filmed/directed in a simple and effective style, bringing us the most realistic form of cinematography I have ever seen. Choosing to adapt the text as a teleplay staged within the context of a small playhouse known as television, we are given a film that focuses more on the words of William Shakespeare and mimics the sort of appearance of how it would look if you were watching this live on stage instead of live on a DVD player. (Or in my case, a portable DVD player.)
The production is filmed on a sound stage at the famous Pinewood Studios (a go to place for just about 40% of the movies filmed in Britain), giving us a theatrical advantage that you never see if this were a big budget shot-on-location film. The idea of shooting the entire teleplay in a studio works in favour with dialogue and occasional stage directions that was always meant for an enclosed space with an audience interested with the story than where the plot is set. (Though, for the record, Nunn’s brilliant directing talents actually make it out as if Shakespeare wrote this play with much more detailed stage direction than just “he enters; she exits; he dies.” How Nunn manages to fill in the caps is nothing short of genius.)
With simple wooden walls (dressed as concrete) and enclosed looking landscapes, it isn’t until the film ends that you realise that this is a recording that you’re watching at home, and not a live production that you’re witnessing at a theatre in Shakespeare’s hometown. The end result is a style of filming that makes you feel like you’re watching an almost gothic form of reality TV, mixed with the production design and direction of the original BBC Television adaptations of Shakespeare’s work aired from 1978 to 1985. Even on a low budget, the film does manage to suck you in because of this unique and effective style.
As well as the look of the production, the choice of music (when there is music) really fits with the mood of the piece (obviously), and adds a great deal of memorable moments in the production. Notably, the accordion based songs performed by Lear’s lifelong jester (played to comedic and tragic perfection by Sylvester—The Seven Doctor—McCoy), leading to a great Russian dance sequence that makes you wish that it was in EVERY future production of King Lear, no matter what time period the latest version is set in. It is one of the greatest comedic moments one could ever see! (And by far, my favourite!)
And I don’t think I really have to state that the actors in the film have truly done something great. With a cast like Sir Ian McKellen, Jonathan Hyde (best known as Bruce Ismay in James Cameron’s Titanic), Sylvester McCoy, Philip Winchester, William Gaunt and Ben Meyjes, it is fairly obvious that you’re in for a treat. With a cast of veteran Shakespearean thespians (and including actors who are just plain talented to begin with), you are given a troupe of very experienced and dedicated players who really do understand the meaning of their script, and to know what gesture works and what gestures fails when performing their text to an audience. Sadly, I wish I could say the same about Lear’s daughters….
This is where the production hits its weak point. (But thankfully, this is the ONLY weak point in the entire recording.) The acting quality of the daughters is just God awful: Romola Cara (playing the role of Cordelia) clearly has no experience with the work of William Shakespeare! She struggles to pronounce her character’s dialogue fluently, and her modern accent throughout the flick does not fit in with the time period that this play is set in. (In Nunn’s production, the scene has been moved from the 17th century (or perhaps earlier) to the 19th century.) She acts more like a chav (or “bogan” as we call them in Australia) in 21st century Whitechapel than a loving princess raised by the hand of a royal family. (And sadly enough, she was supposed to be the play’s heroine, of sorts.)
Frances Barber is just as worse: In the role of Goneril, she seems far too old for the character, even if she is Lear’s first born! She speaks with a voice that doesn’t fit her age, sounds unbelievably abnormal, and downright annoying. Even though Cornel is suppose to be the antagonist—if not anti-hero—of the narrative, Frances goes for the rookie mistake of making the character unfelling and unhuman. A complete monster without a cause or any proper motivation for why she is so quick to turn against her father. (I’m sure there has to be more than just hunger for power!) She portrayed as evil for the sake of evil.
The only daughter who is tolerable to watch is Regan, played by Monica Dolan, who portrays the character of Lear’s middle child with humanity and realism. She acts and looks the right age for a second born, she clearly as a fair amount of experience with material dating back to the Elizabethan era, and, unlike Barber and Cara, has taken the time to understand what makes her character tick. She portrays Regan as middle child who feels under estimated all the time and only asks for things to go her way for once instead of it being based around what her father and her two siblings want. (Or at least, that’s the vibe/message I got from the character. Others may have their own theories about how Dolan was trying to interpret her role.) She gives the character a sense of tragedy than evil. Regan appears on screen as someone who was forced to turn against her father out of years of emotional woundings than performing her cunning deeds like a woman born without a heart. Dolan is a talented actress who deserves much greater praise than just a positive review from critics!
Aside from the awful acting of the oldest and youngest daughters, Trevor Nunn’s version of Shakespeare’s King Lear is a five star production filled with five star actors. McKellen is amazing as a childish king who falls into insanity because of being pushed into a world that’s no as ideal as his castle walls. McCoy is unbelievably amusing as Lear’s fatherly-brotherly jester. William Gaunt blows you away with his portrayal of the brutally mutilated Earl of Gloucester….
….in short: They are ALL brilliant characters, and played by the best West End performers in history. (Minus two bland and talentless women!)
If there’s one version of King Lear that you have to see, go and get yourself a copy of Trevor Nunn’s interpretation. This is by far the BEST version of King Lear ever made!