'King Lear': TV Review

Not as emotionally decimating as a good stage production, but wonderfully cast.
9/28/2018

Running under two hours, Amazon's version of the William Shakespeare tragedy is oddly thin and brisk, but you can't go wrong watching Anthony Hopkins as Lear.

It's been over 20 years since Richard Eyre directed a remarkable Ian Holm in a production of King Lear at the National Theatre. At the time, even admiring critics noted that the production, clocking in at a hair under three hours, was an aggressively trimmed take on one of William Shakespeare's longer plays.

The new Amazon and BBC Two version that brings Eyre back to King Lear runs only 115 minutes. It's hard to stage the play in a way that the protracted journey into the most horrifying of tragedies doesn't leave the viewer rocked, and yet this brisk telefilm, while emotional, is as close as you'll ever get to a zippy jaunt through King Lear. Just because nobody could or should feel this is a definitive King Lear detracts only somewhat from the undeniable joy that comes from even two hours of watching Anthony Hopkins gnash his teeth, wail and go gloriously mad opposite one of the best supporting casts imaginable.

Need we summarize the plot of King Lear for neophytes? Hopkins, three decades past his own National Theatre run in the play, is Lear, an aging monarch who decides to divest his kingdom to his three daughters and their respective politically advantageous husbands. The two older daughters, Goneril (Emma Thompson) and Regan (Emily Watson), are swift to butter up their dad with disingenuous professions of love and devotion. Unmarried youngest daughter Cordelia (Florence Pugh), however, declines to indulge in obsequious expressions of affection, triggering her father to disinherit her and, rather swiftly, to go mad, instigating a power struggle with wide-reaching tragic consequences.

One could go through the entirety of Shakespeare's play to point to the myriad monologues and interactions left on the floor from a text that was already a proto-cinematic assemblage of quickly intercut scenes and a tricky mixture of graphic onscreen violence and titanic emotional beats left offstage. It will take devotees to miss some of the interactions between Lear and his Fool (Karl Johnson), but it's easy to feel that the key relationship between Edgar (Andrew Scott) and scheming self-described bastard Edmund (John Macmillan) comes across as thinner-than-normal, as do the relationships involving Goneril and Regan's husbands Albany and Cornwall (Anthony Calf and Tobias Menzies, both underused). Nothing is lost to the point of incoherence, all is cut to the point of hastiness.

Eyre's flight of adaptation whimsy is to set this King Lear in a semi-futuristic, lightly dystopian version of England that's something of a military dictatorship, albeit one in which everybody still addresses their leader as "king." Ben Smithard's cinematography emphasizes slate-gray stormy skies, sleek metallic automobiles and, in the cast of the daughters' manors, bursts of gaudy color meant to denote extravagance.

Eyre's choices of modern touches are a mixed bag. Staging a sequence of Lear at his most mad and untethered in a rundown outdoor shopping plaza proves an inspired pairing of setting and psyche, ditto adding a blaring car alarm at the center of an already tense verbal confrontation. I loved the idea of having a nerdy Edgar immersed in a bank of computers studying astronomic phenomena in the middle of a discussion of the omens augured by an eclipse, and wished that side of his personality could have been accentuated more. Among the things I could have done without was the rendering of what is generally an Act V duel as an MMA-style brawl. None of it changes the text much and unlike, say, casting Glenda Jackson as King Lear, nothing in Eyre's modernizing has more than a superficial impact.

Casual viewers will focus on these large and visible leaps of adaptation. Those with more varied King Lear experience will enjoy the little pleasures of interpretation, like the rowdiness of Lear's oversized retinue — a boorish posse that makes Goneril and Regan's decision to pare Lear's entourage feel surprisingly reasonable, rather than petty or vindictive. The age range between Thompson, Watson and Pugh, accentuates certain inherent tensions in their relationships and adds a layer of sadness and regret to Lear's ranting about ungrateful children to daughters with no children of their own.

Hopkins returns to Lear like a legendary rock band that knows it can still pack arenas without relying exclusively on its hits. It's a play of familiar dialogue that Hopkins often chooses to expertly underplay, holding his greatest bluster for other moments and monologues. His Lear is often cruel — his "Better thou hadst not been born than not t'have pleased me better" cuts like the sharpest of knives — and just as frequently sad and vulnerable. He is, unsurprisingly, every inch a king.

All three actresses are superb. Thompson is chilly, brittle perfection as we wait for her to reach an inevitable breaking point with her father and his decline and there are more than a few moments in which I wished Eyre could have just framed up Thompson and Hopkins in the same frame and let them tear into each other masterfully, since every close-up or cutaway feels like a betrayal of the other legend. Watson plays Regan as a frumpier middle child, frustrated and eager for opportunity, while there isn't nearly enough of Pugh's millennial Cordelia, justifiably perplexed and disheartened that any of this is occurring.

If there's a minor disappointment in the cast it's Macmillan's fairly basic take on the manipulative Edmund — not a bad take, just much more familiar and predictable than Scott's twitchy, uncomfortable Edgar, complete with a wonderfully feral transformation into his Tom guise. One could happily spend hours listening to Jim Broadbent and Jim Carter's impeccable readings as Gloucester and Kent, while Christopher Eccleston makes for an unexpectedly memorable Oswald, a character who can often feel like part of the ensemble.

It's expected that a theater audience will walk out of King Lear drained and exhausted. That doesn't happen in Eyre's zippy small-screen production. There's some visceral discomfort from Eyre's treatment of the play's brutality and consistent elation from watching the cast at work, but then it's easy to move on to other things — which doesn't feel exactly right, though some viewers will surely prefer it.

Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Emily Watson, Florence Pugh, Jim Broadbent, Jim Carter, Tobias Menzies, Anthony Calf, Andrew Scott, John Macmillan
Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Richard Eyre
Premieres Friday, Sept. 28, on Amazon.