King Lear is one of Shakespeare's most famous tragedies, the story of a king who slowly goes mad in his final years, alienating those who love him, while elevating those who flatter him, until his follies overtake him. Written during the Bard's later years (the first quarto is believed to have been published around 1606), it is also an extraordinarily long play. Shorter cuts run around the 3-hour mark, while "full" productions can easily go for four.
Therein lies the weakness of this Amazon and BBC 2 co-production, which will probably follow the track of 2016's The Collection, and air on PBS sometime next spring. The film doesn't even reach the two-hour mark, leaving multitudes of soliloquies and plot bleeding out upon the floor, slashed to the bone and then some. That's not to say when is left is unwatchable, far from it. In fact, there are times when this production is nothing less than fantastic. The problem in the film is in such a hurry to get through it all, it winds up being the cliff notes version.
Who, precisely, thought this was necessary is unclear. The BBC should know by now they have an audience for good Shakespeare. Their six-part The Hollow Crown series was lauded from all quarters. Moreover, both Amazon and the BBC's iPlayer allow for the audience to stream at home in order to watch these longer productions, with a pause button to add their own intermissions as needed. Why viewers are assumed to be fine with a three-hour Lord of the Rings film, but not a three hour Lear is utterly beyond me.
Unlike the aforementionedThe Hollow Crown, this Lear is reimagined for modern-day, set in a post-Brexit near future, where the country has become hyper-militarized. Unfortunately, this setting never becomes much more than window dressing, purely due to the lack of time the film can dedicate to it. There are moments where it works brilliantly, like a scene where a character who has to go on about augurs and signs and be very 1600s about it all is standing in an astronomy lab, discussing these matters with a character who keeps looking at him like "Hello, SCIENCE?" But these juxtapositions are too few and far between. Likewise, the casting introduces some interesting ideas, with Lear's three daughters spread out across generations. There's Emma Thompson as an aging Gen-X Goneril, Emily Watson as a millennial middle child Regan, and Florence Pugh as Gen-Z Cordelia. Unfortunately, these age gaps and different viewpoints are expressed in costume and attitude only, partly because there is no time to flesh out these specific character choices.
Not that the actors don't give it everything they've got. Hopkins has been playing Lear for decades now, first trying his hand at it way back in 1986 at London’s National Theater. The actor slips into the part like an old pair of shoes, broken in and comfortable, and finally at an age where he can really nail it. It's a bit like watching Paul McCartney come out and do all his greatest hits. Thompson matches him beat for beat, and though their scenes are cut down badly in some places, the two of them are straight fire in their wordplay brawls. Watson chooses wisely in going in the opposite direction than Thompson, playing a frumpy, angry and overlooked character basically willing herself to power. She and Hopkins are also a delight together, even if they are not quite the powerhouse title fight of his scenes with Thompson. Pugh, sadly, gets cut down so badly as to be underused. Perhaps she will thrive in another Lear.
Underused is the watchword for most of the glorious cast, especially Tobias Menzies as Cornwall and Anthony Calf as Albany. Jim Carter acquits himself well as Kent, though the cast-of-thousands-style entourage following Hopkins around does mean he gets a little lost in the middle when he's masquerading as Caius. (It does, on the other hand, mean Goneril and Regan have a real point when they complain about the number of hangers-on around their dad at all times.) One would think Christopher Eccleston as Oswald would also get lost, as in staged versions the character usually feels like Head Chorus Dude #1, but Eccleston steals enough of every scene that he elevates himself into the main players by sheer force of will.
The place where the thinning of the plot is felt most, though, is in the Edmund/Edgar betrayal over Gloucester's position. Edmund (John Macmillan), the bastard, convinces their father (Jim Broadbent) to turn against Edgar (Andrew Scott) while convincing his brother their father has gone mad, and it's all a mistake. It's played as so stereotypically Shakespeare, it somehow manages to feel stilted, even with Scott's brilliant take on the legitimate heir who has been deposed.
Still, any Lear with Hopkins is a good Lear, and while this version may be thinner than most, it's still got all the moments one would wish for, and committing Hopkins to film in the role is really enough for anyone to watch. For newbies, it's a great My First Lear, to get them ready for when the four-hour version arrives down the line.
King Lear is streaming on Amazon Prime Video now.