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Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film

77. Richard Eyre’s King Lear (2018)

I basically hate Macbeth, and I like Lear even fucking less than that, sweet reader, but when the BBC released a film of the elderly tragedy starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, my hand was obviously forced into watching it.

King Lear poster

As I’ve said before, in Lear “There’s a lot of crying. …. A lot of screaming. Not a small amount of whining.” It’s a miserable marathon of operatic super-excess of hysterical emotion. Productions must approach this Olympiad of Blubbering with some wariness.

Hopkins does not blubber.

But more than that, Eyre’s film feels very much like a well-executed film. This is the best film of Lear, and is amongst the very best Shakespeare films of all time. The shots are well-planned, with significant depth of field and a layering of scenes so that the viewer leans into the storytelling, and forgets that the speeches might be deemed set pieces. The story moves so well that the running time, just under two hours, doesn’t feel rushed at all.

King Lear Hopkins

Hopkins understands that being still can sometimes convey anger and heartbreak more profoundly than raising one’s voice. (One is reminded of his brilliant turn as Titus Andronicus.) The result is that the emotions modulate on a comprehensible scale, and the story carries the momentum. One does not feel abandoned onto a wasteland with these characters.

Eyre chose a modern setting, and the wasteland is actually a train stop in England, with Lear, mad, pushing a shopping cart around as another homeless person.

King Lear Homeless

Emma Thompson is an astounding Goneril. In her middle age, she can be commanding, her voice and body able to assume such mightiness, and her hint of vulnerability with Hopkins makes the performance quite memorable.

King Lear Thompson

Emily Watson as Regan is a wonderful foil for both Hopkins and Thompson.

King Lear Blunt

Florence Pugh, as Cordelia, is a bit stoic, which is a great relief for this particular viewer, sweet readers.

King Lear Pugh

Veteran character actor Jim Broadbent is a scene stealer in this film as Gloucester, and he and Andrew Scott as Edgar manage to make their tragic subplot of a ruined family reunited more than tolerable, which is say quite a lot.

King Lear Broadbent

John Macmillan as the scheming bastard Edmund proves a delightful villain a la Richard III.

Richard Eyre directed the Henry IV parts of The Hollow Crown, which was the best part of season one, and his King Lear is superior to that. It’s a solid fucking movie. Anthony Hopkins. Emma Thompson. Superior cinematography. I am trying to avoid spoilers about how perfectly Eyre adapted the text. Just watch the movie. So says this rogue!


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John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.

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