June 13, 2018, by Peter Kirwan

King Lear @ The BBC

Richard Eyre is quite well-represented in the category of made-for-TV films of King Lear; he directed the screen version of his own National Theatre production back in 1998 and now, twenty years later and with a more substantial budget, he directs a rare one-off television film. That budget doesn’t particularly register in the cramped sets, but it does in the dizzying array of acting talent on the screen: Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Emily Watson, Florence Pugh, Jim Broadbent, Andrew Scott, John Macmillan, Jim Carter, Christopher Ecclestone, Chukwudi Iwuji, Tobias Menzies etc etc. It’s an unusual flim that comes without a particular occasion, theatrical origin or anniversary – just the BBC investing in the production of quality Shakespeare.

The BBC’s version of quality Shakespeare, as ever, prioritises the visual, overlaid with a cloying score. Eyre’s last television Shakespeare was the Hollow Crown double-bill of Henry IV, and this film shares many of the earlier pair’s flaws, especially in its predilection for the sentimental. Scenes of Hopkins’s Lear and Karl Johnson’s Fool sitting together wistfully are overplayed for sadness, Eyre refusing to trust his actors and instead letting the music do the majority of the work.

The film is proud of its contemporary setting and location settings. The camera spends a great deal of time capturing sleek luxury cars sidling up to large houses; long shots across manicured lawns; soldiers traipsing across the battlements of the Tower of London. The property porn doesn’t translate into the actual scenes, at least in the first half, which oscillate between tightly shot group scenes in small rooms and incongruous shots of the actors in eerily empty corridors and stairwells. I’m trying to put my finger on it, but it looks like a site-specific production where the cast are making temporary use of a National Trust property, rather than an environment that serves as anyone’s home.  To this end, the most effective scenes are those of arrivals – Carter’s Kent greeting and harrassing Ecclestone’s Oswald as he pulls up in the driveway being one of them.

More effective is the shift to a large, empty and muddy field for the mad scenes. The bleaching out of colour, the fool’s trilby and the sight of the two men hobbling along a road bring to mind Theatre of the Absurd. It’s prosaically shot, diminishing Lear rather than tending towards something more epic, and exaggerates the smallness of the men in the face of the storm. Thematically, however, when Lear, Kent and the Fool turn up at a makeshift refugee camp, it aligns Lear’s experience with the dispossessed peoples he finds himself sharing canvas with. It’s a moment when the contemporary setting finds political resonance, however briefly. As the film enters its closing movements, the opening out to show Gloucester and Edgar at the top of actual cliffs for the clifftop scene is a rare pleasure, and then the film goes a surprising way to evoking a land war in modern England, with explosions on residential streets, cut scenes of fires, and tanks rolling down a street while Edgar dives into a terraced house to rescue his father.

Mise-en-scene aside, the beauty of this film is its reaction shots. Eyre has an excellent sense of what is important in a scene, and his use of frequent cutaways – as opposed to lingering on whoever is speaking – leads to some beautifully subtle emotional work, especially from Watson’s Regan and, of course, the queen of wordless heartbreak, Emma Thompson. In the opening act, the small stories conjured between those who remain quiet – Cornwall winking at Regan before she gives her speech; Regan and Goneril trying to catch Cordelia’s eye; Kent looking aghast at Lear – efficiently establish the unspoken tensions and fears driving the characters. Thompson is excellent throughout, whether composing herself at the top of her stairs (and she looks like someone who could live in that house) before welcoming her father, trying to get through to Lear as he breaks down, or staying composed during an otherwise appalling scene where Lear’s soldiers jeer and fart while she berates her father.

In fact, the women are the production’s main strength. Thompson’s sympathetic Goneril is paired well with Watson’s Regan, who speaks with a low menace that erupts into a terrifying scream on ‘Wherefore to Dover?’, and the two’s gradual unravelling feels both subtle and earned; Thompson’s lingering delivery of ‘the difference between ….. man and man’ following Edmund’s kiss is monumental, positioning this as a turning point that then translates into her flapping hard against her husband as he tries to restrain her; and watching Watson decide to reach for the gun to execute the soldier threatening Cornwall following the eye-gouging scene (excellent sound design) is one of the film’s tenser moments. That both Thompson and Watson are about thirty years older than Pugh, too, adds a fascinating dynamic to the relationship between the three sisters, and the older two seem ready to be protective of her at the start; it’s a shame that the film didn’t find more opportunity to put the three of them together. Chukwudi Iwuji gets a bit of extra time as the King of France, he seen with Cordelia in her encampment, and Cordelia shows a lot of resilience in her moments of brief authority.

Among the other supporting performances, Scott does an extraordinary amount without a lot of screentime. The contortion of his face as he encounters his blinded father (Broadbent), while mimicking a local man with his voice, is one of the film’s highlights. His shift from studious to bedraggled in the forest, screaming out his own name, to gazing at himself in a broken mirror, is somewhat disconnected from the rest of the film, but sets up a clear arc. MacMillan is an energetic Edmund who rather disappears after his prominence in the early scenes, but is at least accorded the privilege of direct address in the early scenes, which helps drive the pace; later, his soliloquies become voice overs, somewhat unbalancing his prominence.

The older men fare well. Carter is bluff as Kent, staunch and reliable, and thoroughly invested in his performance; I think it’s the first time I’ve had a sense of him picking a fight with Oswald almost as a way of maintaining his own character. With Cordelia he shows a great deal of tenderness, walking her by the arm to her father for their reunion. Ecclestone’s scared posh boy Oswald is an interesting choice given the actor, guffawing politely with Goneril and comfortable when in the social milieu he wants to be part of. The Fool is relatively peripheral, and granted a close-up, score-heavy death shot, passing away gasping in the back of a truck.

In such a rich ensemble, Hopkins has to work hard to stand out. His is a nicely varied Lear. His initial treatment of Cordelia is underplayed, he laughing gently, and then removing her dowry almost as a joke, before allowing more anger to be heard in his voice. The anger comes out more strongly immediately before he enters the storm, and Eyre thankfully keeps the score out of the way as Hopkins ploughs through the ‘terrors of the earth’. The heath scenes feel very cursory, but his meeting with Gloucester – an excellent Broadbent – is a highlight. Dressed as a Beckettian tramp, Lear pushes a trolley around an inner-city shopping street while extras rifle throug bins; a hoodied Edgar sits on a bench with his father. Lear’s humour and Gloucester’s sadness play off one another nicely, accompanied by Edgar’s wry smiles. There’s a weird kind of poverty tourism at play here, in one of the most fully realised exterior locations, both acknowledging the plight of the homeless and knowing that they will all leave this environment shortly. The film does allow for empathy, however, and the repeated association of the play’s old men with Britain’s forgotten classes effectively ties in the domestic drama with a larger social concern.

It’s perhaps a shame, then, that the film climaxes in a detached military setting, with Edmund and Edgar brawling while surrounded by military men in fatigues. Thompson gets in some great despair as she is dragged away from the fighting, but the women are otherwise forgotten about; even Cordelia’s body is dragged in with a rope, meaning there is relatively little direct contact between the two of them. Interestingly, Lear is quite hale for much of this scene, walking around and eliciting cheers from his soldiers, before suddenly collapsing upon a closer look at his daughter. The ending privileges emotional response as the soldiers remove their hats, and Kent gets a wonderful moment as he tries to pull out the flat truck holding the bodies by himself before his knees give out, but these moments come at the expense of the relationships that had emerged as strongest, and the almost total bleaching out of colour makes this the least visually interesting part of the whole film.

The closing image of Kent disappearing into the mist as he follows Lear’s body is an unusual choice, and again raises questions about the aims and intended audience of the production. As with The Hollow Crown, the BBC’s main driver in putting on these high-production-value Shakespeares seems to be making them as sad as possible, in a way that mutes other kinds of response and the political potential of a Lear in this setting. But as a showcase for some excellent performances, this largely succeeds.

Posted in Film review