Aired in May on BBC Two and coming September 28th to Amazon’s Prime Video, King Lear is a new take on the classic Shakespeare play with a mind to set itself apart in scale and time, but still hold dear to its beginnings.
The setting is unchanged, but its time certainly has. Set in a twenty-first century similar but not quite the same to our own, King Lear is more a militarized dictator than a king. It’s in brief moments we see this to be the case, with his retinue of one hundred knights more a brigade of military soldiers than knights in the truest sense, and in battle sequences in the third act as characters’ machinations come to fruition. The dividing of his land among his children has led to power grabs and political downfall as Lear falls to madness with the chaos of his reign bearing down on him. It’s a tough narrative, almost depressingly so, but when done right, as Richard Eyre has done here, it can be majestic.
At its very core, however, is performance. The stage play has its interpretations, with softness or bombast in its choice of delivery; here, it is bombast, great stretches of shouting and yelling and gnashing of its scene members, bearing down on the senses with mindful force. With a cast like this, it’s no wondering why: the cast is deep and full of immense talent. With Emma Thompson, Emily Watson, Florence Pugh, Jim Carter, Jim Broadbent, Andrew Scott, Christopher Eccleston, Tobias Menzies, and John Macmillan, the nearly immeasurable mountain at hand of excellent acting is held to a high standard. All deliver, the text giving them something meaningful and meaty to latch onto.
But it is in Anthony Hopkins as the titular Lear where this adaptation finds its most impossible bounty of riches. Hopkins is still flawless, all these years deep into his career, providing the snarling madness and keen cruelty King Lear has to offer with such biting venom and shocking passion, it’s mesmerizing to watch. His read on Lear, along with Richard Eyre’s direction, is full of furious anger and perceived slights, his lost mind so large and looming, it can swallow up everyone else in his scenes. But it’s so powerful a performance, one I did not expect Hopkins to still have in him, with quieter roles as of late.
The land Lear leaves behind and wanders is dreary, grey, and wet, leaving the image to be bleak and dire in its presentation. Given its subject matter, it fits incredibly well, with Lear and his small retinue trudging through the muck as his mad lines rattle out into the cold.
With a condensed cut, a 115 minute version of the stage play, some pieces are left behind and can cause some shortcuts. For those not familiar with the play, this can likely cause some confusion, as at times sudden shifts in the story happen and due to being fairly faithful in its adaptation, proper context is left to quick dialogue and small liberties with scene changes.
It is a small but noticeable detriment to an otherwise beautiful adaptation. I could have used more, but at its length now, the adaptation is well worthy of a visit. The talent at hand is masterful, and brings us another Hopkins performance for the ages. King Lear is one of my favorite plays, and this does it justice.