King Lear movie review: Anthony Hopkins-starrer fails to inspire the awe that the story rightfully should

Anupam Kant Verma

Nov 07, 2018 10:34:51 IST


An old man is always a King Lear, wrote Goethe, the great German playwright. He also famously dismissed the play’s opening scene as absurd. A king, in the twilight of his reign, distributing his wealth to his offspring on the basis of their professed love elicited the standard set of open mouths from his daughters and not a few in the audience alike.

But maybe that’s the key to the maze that is this monumental Shakespearean tragedy, one whose secrets lie rotting like dying specks of light in the darkness steadily gathering within Lear’s mind. An absurd first scene that gradually gives way to full-blown pandemonium, the essence of which Richard Eyre strives to replicate on the screen with the great Anthony Hopkins donning the king’s robes. In keeping with Shakespeare’s greater plays, King Lear can scant work without a staggeringly accomplished central performance. And although this reviewer venerates Hopkins’ craft more than most of the actor’s living peers, his Lear, unfortunately, fails in being consistently inspired. It is a good performance. It even has its memorable moments, where we witness a great actor segue from one emotional plane to another with the ease befitting his stature. But partly due to the rushed nature of Eyre’s narrative and partly Hopkins’ own failings in this rendition, King Lear fails to move and inspire the awe that the source play rightfully should.

King Lear movie review: Anthony Hopkins-starrer fails to inspire the awe that the story rightfully should

A still from King Lear

This is not to disregard the amazing performances that drive Eyre’s film. With talents like Christopher Eccleston, Emma Thompson, Jim Broadbent, Emily Watson and Florence Pugh — in a particularly outstanding turn — on display, it is hard to go wrong. Eyre’s direction is never short on competence as well. The modern setting works sufficiently, even though it often clashes with the blank verse of the original text, and the sly nods to contemporary issues — the refugee crisis, for instance — are cleverly woven in. Eyre conjures a visceral, grimy world flayed by the elements for our king to fit and rage with and against. They are in stark contrast to the lush interiors royalty has grown accustomed to. Shakespeare’s dialogue quickens and drives the film forward, the poetry’s warp and weft often a comfort in the bleakness of the film’s world.

But in choosing to take away substantive chunks of dialogue to accommodate the play within a considerably shorter run-time of a little below two hours, Eyre’s adaptation is left in want of the breathing space necessary for great drama. The first scene, for instance, leaves an unsatisfactory aftertaste. In comparison, Trevor Nunn’s 2008 adaptation for television employed the richness of Shakespeare’s dialogue in that scene far more effectively. Ian McKellen’s Lear — in a great performance — in spending more time with his children and his younger daughter’s suitors, lays a far firmer groundwork for the remainder of the adaptation. Ideally, Eyre should have left the opening scene intact. Wishful as that might sound, Hopkins’ performance, in particular, would have gained substantially from that decision. So would the otherwise hugely impressive Pugh, who plays Cordelia, the youngest daughter, the one who suffers the most during the scene.

The chemistry between Andrew Scott, who plays Edgar, and Broadbent, his father, forms the most moving part of Eyre’s film. Scott, popularly known as Moriarty in the binging universe, nurtures his character carefully and diligently. His shattered dynamic with his father heals so poignantly over the course of the film — owing mainly to the two performances — that you can’t help but suffer along in their plight. No words can possibly describe Thompson and Watson’s sheer malevolent grace. One can only marvel at the ease with which they slip into their characters. Eccleston impresses in his limited role, while John Macmillan’s Edmund is endowed with the right amount of bravado and madness to fit the part.

Hopkins chews the scenery when called upon to do so, ravenously. As a viewer, it is hard to settle upon a particular moral view or judgment of his Lear. He carefully erects a seemingly firm sense of intimacy with the viewer, more often than not throwing his expectations off the very next moment. His Lear is more than satisfactory on that front. But this reviewer failed to discern the careful delineation of the king’s gradual mental decline in Hopkins’ performance.

The madness is undoubtedly omnipresent. Only the degree is inconsistently projected. It is indeed Lear’s shadow that we see in Hopkins, as the king’s fool reminds him. But one fails to witness it grow longer over the course of time convincingly enough. In short, it isn’t among the most distinguished portrayals of the mad king. The same goes for Eyre’s adaptation. He often finds it difficult to shake off the theatrical roots of the play, which shows clearly within the confines of the cinematic frame. When he isn’t guilty of that, the direction is regulation, at best.

Eyre’s King Lear isn’t a great work of art by any means. Even with the right intent, it is ill-served by a lack of pure inspiration, which is necessary for any distinguished Shakespearean adaptation in any form. It is solid where it ought to have been earth-shaking, reliable when idiosyncrasy would have served it better and the reverse, in a few key places.

Watch the trailer for King Lear here:

Updated Date: Nov 07, 2018 10:34:51 IST