Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Emily Watson, Florence Pugh, Jim Carter, Jim Broadbent, Andrew Scott, John Macmillan, and Tobias Menzies
Adapted and Directed by: Richard Eyre
Based on the Play: King Lear by William Shakespeare
One of The Bard’s bleakest tragedies gets a gritty, actor showcasing adaptation in Amazon Studios and the BBC’s King Lear. Anchored by the commanding yet mercurial Anthony Hopkins and brought to screen by the man who graced us with Stage Beauty, this out of the box reimagining of the tale of the mad king and his three daughters is a grim, but interestingly staged affair. Recalling some of the recent darker paramilitary Royal Shakespeare Company films like Patrick Stewart’s turn as Macbeth, this adaptation is spartan. Yet still theatrical as most of the action is shot in intimate camera moves amid expansive sets. Mostly British mansions and museums filling in for stately throne rooms and ducal estates. A rare compactly laid out full-text adaptation, Amazon and the BBC’s King Lear is a gut-wrenching experiment with one of Shakespeare’s best-known works.
The story of the Mad King Lear is well known by this point. An age-addled King (Hopkins) decides to split his kingdom between his three daughters, Goneril (Emma Thompson), Regan (Emily Watson), and Cordelia (Florence Pugh) based on who loves him best. Both Goneril and Regan are vipers, but fair Cordelia loves him best. In his insanity, he rebukes her. Even going so far as to ruin a marriage pact between her and the King of France that would secure peace. From there, things go spectacularly pear-shaped. This being a movie and not a five-act play, it happens much, much quicker.
It is here where the economy of Eyre’s adaptation and direction really impresses. The film neatly compacts whole acts and streamlining most of the narratives to focus on the main royals and their machinations. Also, the descent of Lear into his madness and the political upheaval it causes is brought into closer focus. This allows for the movie overall to have a real propulsion and for the myriad of performances to take the spotlight.
And holy cats, is this movie filled with stellar performances. In the titular role, Anthony Hopkins is clearly relishing the part as he booms and simpers and snipes throughout the movie. He burns bridges with his family and driving his land (and himself) further into chaos. His three daughters are more than a match for his large and in charge take on Lear.
Thompson’s Goneril is all cocksure power. She cuts her way through scenes with her venomous smile and razor-sharp incantation of the Bard’s words. Emily Watson’s Regan is a different kind of manipulative. Her take on the character is much more maternal and subtle. She uses her reputation as a softer character actor to subvert her characterization into a compelling villainess. Florence Pugh’s Cordelia isn’t really given that much to do beyond the opening scenes. But seeing her transform from a steely waif to military commander is one of the film’s great joys.
The rest of the film’s cast is also positively stocked with talent. From Andrew Scott to Jim Broadbent, the rest of the play’s cast, the “Dukes” of various other areas in England and their progeny, both legitimate and illegitimate, also bring it and make the play’s words really sing as the film gradually ticks along. If I had one complaint though, it is Eyre’s overall design and concept for the movie. It lands somewhere between modern totalitarian science fiction and speculative alternate military history. The film’s costuming and set design are often at odds with one another. You can tell that themes and cues were taken from previous productions. However, it never really stands apart on its own or stands out in a showy way like some other, more visually appealing, adaptations.
Verdict: Watch It
Packed with towering performances and standing as one of the few full-text Shakespeare adaptations that squeezes some genuine pep out of the centuries-old play, King Lear is an engaging, grimly entertaining adaptation and is sure to be a big feather in the cap for Amazon Prime’s movie division. I would have loved for it to have a stronger central concept and visual design. This take on the material really works hard to make the story matter to modern audiences thanks to poise, interesting actors, and a heavily trimmed script.