The pseudo-historical Leir of Celtic Britain actually regained his throne with the help of the French and his youngest daughter Cordelia, but that was no fun for Shakespeare. Everything about his Lear had to be tragic. That makes it a heck of a role to play. When Sir Anthony Hopkins played “Sir,” the actor preparing to portray King Lear in The Dresser a few years ago, it probably gave a lot of people ideas that he makes good on now. Hopkins stars in Richard Eyre’s modernized and somewhat abridged King Lear (trailer here), which premieres on Amazon Prime this Friday.
It is a slightly dystopian Britain, but the narrative is still Lear. You know, one king with three daughters. He tries to divide his kingdom among the triumvirate, but the youngest daughter, who loves him best, refuses to play that game. A cold war quickly develops between the two ambitious sisters, egged on by Edmund, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester. Right, that Lear.
For the most part, the stylized setting is rather effective. Eyre’s Lear often shares a kinship with Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus, in the way they depict modern warfare and a militaristic milieu. Plus, many scenes were shot in and around the imposing Dover Castle, which is quite a dramatic backdrop. However, the sequences of the mad Lear scuffling through an open-air shopping district feel like an ill-advised Beckett production.
Regardless, Hopkins is definitely a Lear to be reckoned with, encompassing all the bluster and tragedy that have made the character so iconic. Frankly, it is the Lear we would hope for and expect from him, but he also happens to be fronting an incredibly deep ensemble. You know it is a big cast when a knighted actor and a former Doctor Who appear rather late in the credits (Sir John Standing, memorably dignified as Gloucester’s Butler, and Christopher Eccleston as Oswald, Goneril’s steward).
Emma Thompson, Emily Watson, and Florence Pugh from Lady Macbeth are also arguably quite a dream team as the three daughters. Thompson is wonderfully Machiavellian as Goneril (a name that has fortunately fallen out of favor), while Pugh is quite poignant as Cordelia, but Watson’s Regan suffers when compared to Thompson. Andrew Scott continues to be one of the best character actors in the business with his intense turn as Edgar, Gloucester’s legitimate heir. However, the most likely award nominees should be the two Jims: Downtown Abbey’s Jim Carter as Kent and Jim Broadbent as Gloucester, both of whom give terrific, deeply absorbing performances.
Eyre’s adaptation is really quite faithful, shotgunning every notable plot point into one hour and fifty-five minutes. He also keeps the language and the general tone of Shakespeare’s play, while cinematographer Ben Smithard (whose classy credits include Viceroy’s House and I, Anna) gives it all a sinister sheen. It might be unusually svelte for a Shakespeare production, but it is still a very well-put-together package. Highly recommended, King Lear starts streaming this Friday (9/28), on Amazon Prime.