June 27, 2008, by Peter Kirwan
King Lear : The Movie
Any new film version of a Shakespeare play is always welcome, but this announcement from the Guardian sounds particularly interesting:
The Oscar-winning actor Anthony Hopkins is to play King Lear in a new film version of the Shakespeare tragedy, it was confirmed today.
The film will feature Gwyneth Paltrow, Naomi Watts and Keira Knightley as Lear’s three daughters, with more big names to be revealed soon, according to the director, Joshua Michael Stern.
"The one thing that I’m staying away from is stunt casting," said Stern, "so there won’t be the American comedian, but there will be some really great actors playing smaller roles that will make a lot of sense."
Despite Stern’s background – he’s scripted episodes of Law & Order and Chicago Hope – he insists he won’t be meddling with the original text. "I’m not very fond of the modern adaptations," he said. "It’s pre-Roman, Celtic, very raw. It’s a period in British history, from which Tolkien took a lot of his inspiration, where there were thatched-roof roundhouses and fortresses."
Stern’s previous directorial efforts have been limited to a couple of comedy shorts: Queer Eye for the Homeless Guy and Jewz N The Hood, both shot in 2005.
Hopkins is said to be "thrilled" at the chance to reprise the role he played in David Hare’s production of the play at the National 21 years ago in 1987.
Shooting is scheduled to begin in Britain or Ireland early next year.
Here’s my analysis of the interesting things in this announcement:
- He’s "not very fond of the modern adaptations". Well, this is a viewpoint, if not one I share. Whatever his reasoning, though, I’d actually welcome a decent period-set Lear that evoked the time in which it was set, much as Roman Polanski did for Macbeth. It’s a rich period, and on a cinema screen could be quite spectacular and draw out the interesting pre-Christian resonances in the text.
- Keira Knightley as Cordelia. Bit unsure, but then I think the part is well within her range. Might give her a chance to bring out the Celtic warrior-woman armour from King Arthur again.
- Two very attractive older sisters, which is interesting, and nice to see that they’re not going for evil old hags, as it were. It’ll be interesting to see how the sisters relate to one another.
- "Really great actors playing smaller roles". One can only hope they avoid the trap that Kenneth Branagh fell into with Hamlet, which turned the film into a "Where’s Wally?" game on a massive scale, with people more interested in who was playing who then what they were saying.
- Anthony Hopkins as Lear. Enough said.
This is a far better way of engaging new audiences with Shakespeare than putting a celebrity-ridden version on the stage.
I’m all in favour of more Keira on the screen.
Another good thing about her is that she’ll be very easy for Hopkins to carry at the end!
I’ve got nothing against seeing famous faces in Shakespeare, per se—the question is whether they do a good job. I thought Denzel Washington was superb in Much Ado, and ditto Charleton Heston in Hamlet. But Jack Lemmon was a disgrace, and let’s not even talk about (shudder) Keanu Reeves. I know opinion is divided about Keaton’s Dogberry and Cristal’s Gravedigger, but I enjoyed both of them, as well.
One of my favourite recurring faces in Branagh’s films is Brian Blessed, who for better or worse is always extremely entertaining. He gave a powerful performance in ‘As You Like It’ as the Dukes, particularly in a silent moment of despair and loneliness as the evil Duke, left in his palace in darkness while everyone else partied in the forest. Best thing in that film.