One of the most renowned film versions of King Lear is that of Russian director Grigori Kozintsev, who directed his adaptation in 1970, when he was 65 years of age, and secured an original score by Shostakovich himself. The 2007 American DVD version is becoming hard to find, but affordable region 2 releases of both Kozintsev’s Lear and his Hamlet (1964) are now available, thanks to distributor Mr. Bongo.
Rugged and wind-swept, this Lear is kept in stark black and white. Estonian actor Jüri Järvet, in a seminal portrayal, plays a leather-featured, wild-haired and despair-eyed king, reminiscent in no small way of a confused and aged Klaus Kinski. The country that Lear rules is bare and cold and muddy, sometimes flat, sometimes rocky, and mostly devoid of vegetation. The population, consisting of beggars and peasants, subsists in noble misery. Most productions of this play do not show us the general population at all, but focus only on the courtly characters, but it stands to reason that a Soviet-era adaptation wouldn’t refrain from a certain emphasis on the point of view of the common people. After all, one of Gloucester’s sons, Edgar, is forced to become one of them as Poor Tom.
At the start of the play, Lear is retiring. Having reached the age of 80, he now resolves to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. He prompts them to describe how much they love him, assuming beforehand that his youngest and dearest daughter, Cordelia, will love him the most, and therefore deserve the greatest part of the tripartite kingdom. However, Cordelia refuses to play the flattering game, and old Lear, having already given the first two thirds of his kingdom to his older daughters, Goneril and Regan, cannot understand her reservations and is incensed. He divides the third part between the two other daughters and casts Cordelia off. The king of France is at court as one of the suitors to Cordelia, and as the other suitor, the duke of Burgundy, will not have her penniless and without her dowry, the French king takes pity on her and accepts to take her off Lear’s hands.
Lear now leaves his castle with only a hundred knights that he keeps as his royal retinue, and also his court jester, known throughout the play only as “fool”. Riding between Goneril and Regan’s respective parts of the kingdom to take up residence alternately with each, Lear finds himself despised by his greedy daughters, who try to take away his knights and his remaining power. Desperately, Lear tries to find some shred of daughterly devotion in them, but all they can say is that he is wronging them and he must apologize and diminish his retinue. Soon the two daughters gang up on him and explain to him that he doesn’t need a hundred knights. In fact, he doesn’t need twenty. Actually, he doesn’t even need one. And bang! The door is slammed in his face. Destitute and disowned, Lear has no choice but to exit the gates of the castle, accompanied by none but his fool, the howling heath now his only haunts.
Kozintsev’s adaptation demonstrates the extreme and maddening tragedy of severed familial ties with such pain and severity that the same stunned shock that Lear feels cannot help but sweep over the viewer. Lear’s disappointment with Goneril makes him ask Nature herself, in the following famous passage, to make her sterile so that she will never feel the so-sharp pain of an ungrateful child:
Lear: Hear, Nature, hear! dear goddess, hear!
Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend
To make this creature fruitful.
Into her womb convey sterility;
Dry up in her the organs of increase;
And from her derogate body never spring
A babe to honour her! If she must teem,
Create her child of spleen, that it may live
And be a thwart disnatur’d torment to her.
Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth,
With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks,
Turn all her mother’s pains and benefits
To laughter and contempt, that she may feel
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless child!
I have not seen an adaptation in which these emotions were as powerfully conveyed as they are in this one. I am very familiar with the play, and have seen many versions, but in the case of this play I am more used to focusing on the symbolism, such as for instance that Lear has given away his rational faculties to his daughters, as the fool keeps reminding him:
Fool: Thou hast pared thy wit o’ both sides [Goneril and Regan] and left nothing i’ th’ middle [the banished Cordelia]. (Act 1, scene 4)
Fool: I can tell why a snail has a house.
Fool: Why, to put’s head in; not to give it away to his daughters.
(Act 1, scene 5)
Where the normal rational/emotional dichotomy follows the male and the female characters, respectively, this play has turned that convention on its head, making Lear emotional and his daughters rational. “O, reason not the need!”, as Lear begs of Goneril and Regan as they strip him of his “unnecessary” retinue of knights. Lear is looking for love, but his daughters value reason too much to willingly or capably express that emotion. The consequence for Lear is rampant distress, both psychological and practical.
On the arid heath Lear rages against the elements, until his faithful disguised servant Kent and the fool bring him to a hovel where Gloucester’s son Edgar resides, in his guise as Poor Tom. Lear seems to recover his wits a bit as he meets Edgar (whom Lear calls a philospher and is very impressed by), and begins to understand the plight of his subjects, who barely survive in the cold countryside, with no benefit of law or justice. “O, I have ta’en too little care of this,” says Lear. The original play only has these characters in these scenes, but in this and many other scenes Kozintsev peppers the places with the poor working and begging subjects of Lear, situating him amongst them, so he becomes part of the social milieu of his world; so that he partakes in their experience and becomes class-conscious. His mental healing process brilliantly becomes tied to his acceptance of the neglected rights and the social reality of the people.
Towards the end Cordelia returns with the French army, fighting Goneril and Regan and acknowledging her reverence for her kingly father, which also helps to set his world right. These improvements brings Lear back from the edge of madness, just in time to witness the horror of Cordelia’s tragic demise by order of the evil Edmund, which in turn bereaves him of his own life. The drama ends with Edgar as the new ruler of a world that has endured debilitating losses, yet faces a hopeful future.
The movie is a grand and epic achievement, featuring magnificent castles and a literal cast of thousands, such as is usually never seen in a King Lear adaptation, most of which tend to be set in a location resembling (and often being) a simple stage. But here we have scenes of people trekking across blasted landscapes, armies clashing under medieval battlements, and costumes and armor and weapons and horses and wild animals aplenty. Spared no expense.
This version has, in spades and bucketfuls, all the mind-blowing despair of a great tragedy – Kozintsev has made a Lear to last the ages; a version that compares favorably with most others, and even gives the Olivier version a run for its money. At a tidy 139 minutes – shorter than most Lear versions – it does not include every detail of the original text, but it feels entirely wholesome even so.
The new DVD release is a relatively bare-bones one; the image resolution is adequate but not impressive, and the subtitles fall a bit short of professional quality, as they often disappear too quickly for the viewer to finish reading them. There are also occasional typos. A shame, as a Russian version has to have decent English subtitles in order to be well understood outside of Russia. If there is ever a cleaned-up Blu-ray version of this movie, I will be the first in line to buy it.
I have not seen the American DVD, but I do own the 2-disc Russian Cinema Council regionfree DVD, which has several extra features and subtitles in 13 languages. The new release from Mr. Bongo does not equal the Russian one, but it is cheaper and more easily available, which is good.
Director: Grigori Kozintsev
Cast: Jüri Järvet, Valentina Shendrikova, Elza Radzina, Galina Volchek, Oleg Dal, Karlis Sebris, and others
Runtime: 139 min.