(This post is written by Shabanah Fazal and posted by Roy Stafford)
King Lear is Shakespeare’s tale of an ageing monarch who makes a spectacular error of judgement by dividing his kingdom through a ‘love trial’ of his three daughters, unleashing chaos in the land. There are countless film versions, some of the best known like King of Texas (US TV film, 2002), A Thousand Acres (Iowa, US 1997), Ran (Japan 1985), transplanting the story to radically different soil. Peter Brook’s monochrome film (1971) is considered by many the definitive screen version of Shakespeare’s original. In his absurdist vision, the key word ‘Nothing’ reverberates throughout – from the black silence of the opening titles to the apocalyptic waste of the ending. Most British stage and screen productions have followed in this tradition of nihilistic despair, recent ones taking the theme of breakdown further by retreating to the small, dark, senseless space of an old man’s dementia-ridden head.
It was refreshing therefore recently to discover Grigori Kozintsev’s gloriously expansive Russian language film Korol Lir. Released the same year as Brook’s film and superficially similar in its monochrome vision of tragic destruction, it deserves to be far better known: Kozintsev offers a more coherent, richer and arguably uplifting reading of Shakespeare. The film is available on DVD but only a cinema re-release could truly do justice to this wide-screen epic. A contemporary of Eisenstein, Kozintsev was an experimental film-maker who learned his craft in the great age of montage, with the creative theatre and film school FEKS; in his later career, he developed into a visually imaginative but more mature artist with a (socialist?) realist style. He was also a Shakespeare scholar with a deep interest in his tragic ‘philosophy’, so it is no surprise that in the 1940s he staged and later filmed his two darkest tragedies Gamlet (1964) and Korol Lir (1971). Kozintsev declared he wanted ‘to create a visual poetry with the same quality as that of Shakespearian verse’ (dialogue with Ronald Hayman, 1973) – so dramatically cut Shakespeare’s lines (the film runs to only 2 hours 11 minutes). Achieving his goal was made easier because of his long and close collaboration with translator Boris Pasternak and composer Dmitri Shostakovich on productions of Shakespeare. Shot on the shores of the Baltic, both films are remarkable for their powerfully symbolic elemental imagery, luminous clarity of vision and epic – often monumental – shot-making. There is no finer example than the breathtaking scene in which the ghost of Hamlet’s father first appears on the castle battlements.
Much of the rich ambiguity of Kozintsev’s Shakespeare films derives from the Soviet context: they share the quality of ‘double-voicing’ (Bakhtin) that characterises much of the art produced in a repressive state. That is to say, they can be read as innocent ‘art’ or allegorically, as political critique of the Soviet system. In turn, audiences were primed to look for encoded meanings – each one potentially a small act of resistance. To the distant pre-Christian English setting of King Lear, Kozintsev added another layer of strangeness, using some foreign actors dubbed into Russian – for example, lead actor Estonian Juri Jarvet. As a truth-hating tyrant whose actions ruin his country (symbolised by his tearing up of an enormous map of the nation), Lear stands for oppressive Soviet leadership, from Stalin to Brezhnev. However, Kozintsev suggests he is doomed from the start: unlike the great bearded patriarch of the silent era Lear (1909) or Patrick Stewart’s heroically masculine ‘King of Texas’, gaunt-faced Juri Jarvet cuts a frail figure. For all the actor’s passionate performance, this Lear is dwarfed by his throne, his outsize royal garments and ridiculously sculpted hair collapsing around him as he hurtles towards his downfall. In presenting the all-powerful leader as almost comically impotent from the start, Kozintsev creates pity for Lear and but also stirs the political hopes of his audience.
Like many Russian artists who saw Shakespeare as a radical and their contemporary, Kozintsev understood instinctively the deeply political nature of a tragic vision that links the fate of the individual to the nation. From the opening frames to the great final battle, this feels like a biblical epic. In his re-imagining of the play, Kozintsev presents the poor multitudes on the move, devotedly following Lear on his journey all the way to Dover – crowds that perhaps represent the peasantry or proletariat, the dispossessed and alienated living in internal exile. Lear has to be reduced to their level, to a state of Nature, to ‘ . . . a bare, forked animal’ before the process of regeneration can begin. At this climactic point of the narrative, Kozintsev makes Nature his central character. In a series of intensely atmospheric scenes Ionas Gritsius’ savagely beautiful cinematography captures the disorder both in Lear’s mind and kingdom. In the critical storm scene, there is an epic sweep to his camera work, which takes us to vast windswept wastelands where high overhead shots pick out a tiny figure illuminated in the darkness – Lear raging pitifully against the elements. Such shots are reminiscent of Orson Welles’ Macbeth and Othello, but Welles’ use of chiaroscuro is more noirish. In this scene wild grunting boars, horses, and bears charge restlessly through desert spaces, amid an enhanced soundscape of violently rustling trees and howling winds. The film abounds in such primitive imagery and Kozintsev does not flinch from the darkest side of human nature. After the unimaginable cruelty of Gloucester’s eyes being gouged out, he reflects Lear’s verdict that he has spawned sexually rapacious ‘tigers, not daughters’ by cutting to invented scenes of Goneril and Edmund having sex, followed by the necrophiliac horror of Regan not so much kissing as devouring the face of her dead husband Cornwall.
Despite its darkness, there are other striking features that make this a politically engaged film. Firstly, Kozintsev gives the Fool (Oleg Dahl) a much greater role than usual, exploiting his ambiguous status as state servant but licenced truth-teller to represent him partly as the artist, and partly as the ‘holy fool’ of Russian tradition. He introduces him to the play earlier than does Shakespeare, showing Lear from the start sheltering him under his cloak and patting him on the head, like a surrogate child, a reminder of the loving daughter Cordelia he has unjustly banished. Crouching in dark corners, the Fool is a loyal dog growling out his riddling wisdom to Lear. From the opening titles, Shostakovich uses the motif of jaunty pipe music to signal the Fool’s artistic purity and role as the voice of Shakespeare’s conscience. Even though the playwright has him fade away well before then, Kozintsev keeps him till the final frames, when he is kicked aside like a cur but rises defiantly to play Russian folk tunes that hint of hope to the audience.
Secondly, Kozintsev makes overt use of Christian references in a pagan world that can be taken for the atheist state. Shostakovich begins with highly emotive religious chants, reflecting the growing role of the Russian Orthodox Church as a force of resistance in the later Communist era. His orchestral score then builds to a thundering discordant climax as Lear ascends prophet-like to the top of his castle to address his kneeling subjects, only to spew ugly fire against his daughters. To emphasise that Lear is the false god of the old order, Kozintsev cuts straight to a new order in which the forces of good are aligned with Christian imagery of resurrection: Cordelia’s marriage to France (off-stage in Shakespeare’s play) takes place before a great wooden cross. He underscores this idea through the use of a fabric motif; first seen in the background to the opening and closing titles is a threadbare coarse-weave fabric that symbolises both the ruination of Lear’s land and its salvation. This becomes clear when Gloucester’s innocent banished son Edgar (disguised as Poor Tom the beggar) uses such a fabric to cover his nakedness, but later gives up even this meagre rag to bind his broken staff into a cross marking his father’s grave. Fire that is first foregrounded burning in Lear’s hearth eventually becomes a raging holocaust, evoking perhaps the destruction of two world wars, Hiroshima and Vietnam. But the effect is cathartic and perhaps revolutionary: the whole social order must be razed to the ground for a better one to arise. After the deaths of Lear and Cordelia, the camera takes us out wide to birds flying over the sea, signifying not death but liberation. Ending on images of sacrifice and redemption might in a western context seem almost reactionary, but here can be read as resistance.
Faced with the everyday threat of personal and nuclear annihilation, for the artists of Brezhnev’s Cold War USSR despair might have seemed a western luxury; on the other hand, engagement was an act of survival. Some might dismiss the film as rather traditional, but for me it is precisely Kozintsev’s commitment to a search for meaning that makes his version of King Lear particularly appealing in our jaded postmodern age. His achievement was to marry poetry and politics using the moving image – the ultimate light illusion – to conjure something from Shakespeare’s ‘Nothing’.
The film is officially available from Lenfilm (with English subs) in HD (but a slightly-squeezed aspect ratio on YouTube:
April 23rd sees celebration to mark the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. He is certainly England’s most famous and celebrated writer and there have been numerous adaptation of his plays. These range from one-reel minimal adaptations in the early years of cinema to substantial and lengthy features. Park Circus have with their usual promptness joined in the act with a list of films available for theatrical screenings. Helpfully they also list whether these are available in 2K or 4K digital versions. Note though, there have been cases in the past where a feature DCP is actually from a DVD or Blu-Ray uploaded into the format.
Writers on film adaptations have offered models for discussion. One set of categories has been offered by the writer by Geoffrey Wagner:
Transposition, ‘in which a novel is given directly on the screen with a minimum of apparent interference.’
Commentary, ‘where an original is taken and with purposively or inadvertently altered in some respect … when there has been a different intention on the part of the filmmaker, rather than infidelity or outright violence.’
Analogy, ‘which must represent a fairly considerable departure for the sake of making another work of art.’
Examples of all three variants can be found below.
All Night Long UK 1962, in black and white and 1.66:1 ratio.
Basil Dearden repositions ‘Othello’ in London’s jazz scene of the 1960s. Featuring Dave Brubeck, Charles Mingus and more. Available in 2K.
I really rate this film and the jazz performances are excellent.
Othello USA 1995, in colour and standard widescreen
Laurence Fishburne breaks new ground as the first African American actor to star in a major studio adaptation of ‘Othello’. Available in 2K.
Fishburne is very effective. The adaptation makes frequent cuts to the text but sticks to the play. The accents are variable.
Hamlet USA 1996, in colour and originally 70mm.
Kenneth Branagh’s unabridged epic now available on DCP.
Impressive though it also uses ‘star names’ for supporting cameos which is a little distracting.
Hamlet UK 1948, in black and white and Academy ratio.
Laurence Olivier performs drama’s most famous role.
Impressive and this is Olivier’s metier. John Huntley recalled that the voice of the ghost at the opening was ingeniously recorded with a microphone dropped into a cistern as the words were voiced through the studio piping.
Henry V / The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift with His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France UK 944, in Technicolor and Academy ratio.
Olivier heads once more unto the breach.
Splendid and imaginative. Among its many fine qualities are the cinematography by Robert Krasker and Jack Hillyard and the music of William Walton.
Henry V UK 1989, in Technicolor and standard widescreen.
Kenneth Branagh’s directorial debut, restored in 2K.
A worthy alternative to the Olivier version. Also graced by fine cinematography by Kenneth MacMillan and music by Patrick Doyle.
Theatre of Blood UK 1973, in deluxe colour and 1.66:1 ratio.
Vincent Price’s Shakespearean actor adds murder to his repertoire, now on DCP.
Price is hammy but great and there is the added attraction of Diana Rigg. I rather think Shakespeare would have enjoyed this. The film offers gruesome variations of ‘Julius Caesar’, ‘King Lear’, ‘The Merchant of Venice’, ‘Othello’, ‘Richard III’ and Titus Andronicus.
Romeo and Juliet UK/Italy 1968, in Technicolor and 1.66:1 ratio. [There was a 70mm version and there are different lengths, the longest was 149 minutes].
4K restoration of Zeffirelli’s classic adaptation.
This works well, John McEnery as Mercutio is the most Shakespearean but it does capture youthful passion.
West Side Story USA 1961, in Technicolor and originally 70mm.
‘Romeo and Juliet’ gets a New York update.
This is one of the great transformations of a play. The choreography by Jerome Robbins is stunning as is the main music by Leonard Bernstein. The romantic couple are not really adequate but there is Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno and George Chakiris to compensate.
Richard III UK 1955, in Technicolor and 1.66:1 ratio.
Olivier’s crowning performance as the man who would be king.
Again Olivier provides a definitive interpretation. More music by William Walton and noir cinematography by Otto Heller.
Richard III UK 1995, in Technicolor and 2.35:1 widescreen
Ian McKellen is Shakespeare’s most notorious villain, 2K restoration.
McKellen provides a bravura re-interpretation as a fascist leader in the 1930s.
The Tragedy of Macbeth UK 1971, in Technicolor and 2.35:1 ratio
Polanski’s brutal interpretation, restored in 4K.
One of the most violent rendering of the play: and typical of Roman Polanski, even down to the music by the Third Ear Band.
King Lear UK 1971, in black and white and 1.66:1 ratio.
Peter Brook’s uncompromising take on Lear’s descent into madness.
Impressive Danish landscapes and Paul Schofield in the lead.
My Own Private Idaho USA 1991, in colour and standard widescreen.
Gus Van Sant’s street hustlers travel through the history plays.
Combining the two parts of ‘Henry IV’ and ‘Henry V’ with freedom and with settings in the contemporary USA and Italy. River Phoenix is excellent and one can imagine Shakespeare loving the suggestions made by the film.
Most of the above films could also be screened from 35mm prints if enlightened distributors and exhibitors so wished. And there are other fine variants of the Bard’s work.
Akira Kurosawa made several adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, available in subtitled versions.
Throne of Blood / Kumonosu-jô 1957, in black and white and in Academy ratio. The film has a bravura performance by Mifune Toshirô as ‘Macbeth’ and is filmed in the style of Noh Theatre. Possibly the most original treatment of a classic Shakespeare play.
The Bad Sleep Well / Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru 1960, in black and white and Tohoscope. [The Japanese version is longer, 151 as against 132 minutes]. The film can be read as a version of ‘Hamlet’ and develops its own inexorable sense of the tragic.
Ran 1985, in colour and standard widescreen. Based on ‘King Lear’ this is an epic film with lustrous visuals and an ironic treatment of the characters.
Orson Welles is another filmmaker who repeatedly revisited Shakespeare’s work. Note, that in most cases there are either different length versions or truncated versions.
Macbeth 1948, in black and white and Academy ratio. Welles does wonders with a small budget and some serious trimming of the play.
The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice 1952, black and white and in Academy ratio. This is noir or expressionist Shakespeare. Welles’ Othello is matched by Micheál MacLiammóir’s Iago. The production, involving five cinematographers, four editors, two designers and two composers, was itself a legendary odyssey.
Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight 1965, in black and white and 1.66:1 ratio. Taken from ‘Henry IV Parts 1 and 2’, ‘Henry V’ and the ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’. This is one of the great treatments of a Shakespearean character. Essential viewing for Shakespeare and the cinema.
Grigori Kozintsev is another great interpreter of the Bard, these are in Russian with subtitled versions..
Hamlet 1964, in black and white and Sovscope. This has a terrific lead in Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy and a major contribution to the script by Boris Pasternak.
King Lear / Korol Lir 1971, in black and white and Sovscope with subtitles. Magnificent with the settings providing the desolation which is at the centre of the play. Again with scripting by Boris Pasternak and a score by Dimitri Shostakovich.
Then there is the William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet USA 1996, in colour and 2.35:1. Many imaginative and contemporary touches, but also frequently camp. Luhrmann, unlike Shakespeare [except in ‘Titus Andronicus’] never knows when to stop.
Omkara India 2006 in colour and 2.35:1 and with subtitles. This is a Hindi language version of ‘Othello’. This is the Bard with real panache. The translation to the subcontinent is really intelligent.
The Merchant of Venice USA 2004, in De Luxe colour and 2.35:1. Al Pacino is splendid as the much debated Shylock. The performance captures the contradiction at the heart of the famous play.
Then if you want something a little lighter in tone.
The Taming of the Shrew USA 1967, in Technicolor and 2.35:1. [Also screened in 70mm]. Shakespeare comes off well, Richard Burton is excellent but Elizabeth Taylor walks off with the honours.
Kiss Me Kate USA 1953, in Ansco Color and both 3D and ‘flat screen’, [which does not help technically]. ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ again and Ann Miller is splendid, Cole Porter is tuneful and the film has the mantra for this whole post – ‘Brush up your Shakespeare!”. Be warned, there are probably another 400 film versions.