© 2005 John Murphy
Cries and Whispers
Peter Brook’s King Lear is a curious artifact from the early 70’s. Ingmar Bergman’s fingerprints are all over the bleak black & white visuals as well as the sometimes nonsensical editing cues (gotta love those random zooms and fades to black). The landscape is a lunar-like tundra — flat, icy —an appropriate setting for a play that puts Beckett to school on all matters existential. Moribund thespians speak their lines as though their vocal chords have been dipped in amber. Brook, a legendary theater director, is no Bergman when it comes to the cinema, however, and his artsy effects are occasionally strained. The text is gutted to the point of almost complete incoherence to all but those most intimate with the play. In short, I would discourage teachers/professors from showing this movie to their classes as a means of introduction. [Editor's note: we recommend the James Earl Jones or Laurence Oliver versions for classrooms.]
That being said, anyone familiar with Lear, for my money the most cosmic and depressing work in the Shakespeare canon, should give this fascinating, frustrating version a chance. Apart from the poetic and oftentimes stunning visuals, what makes the production a must-see is Paul Scofield’s tour-de-force performance as the king more sinned against than sinning. In a bracingly original interpretation, Scofield plays the King as an irascible old fart — meaner than a junkyard dog, as my mom would say. Lear earns no sympathy points for a long stretch. He’s a childish tyrant lording it over his somewhat shaken, understandably intimidated daughters, Goneril and Regan. When Cordelia says she loves him only in accordance with her bond as a daughter, no more and no less, we believe her. He overturns a dinner table in a hissy fit when he doesn’t get his way. He lets his soldiers run rampant. In one of the most chilling passages in English, he curses his daughter and wishes on her sterility, ending in that famous line, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.”
He’s a cold, unfeeling bastard. Scofield walks a tight rope, but his unsympathetic take on the part pays off in a big way: Lear’s transformation from a tyrant spoiled by long years surrounded by brown-nosers (a man who only but “slenderly knows himself” as Goneril astutely observes) into the suffering yet somehow contented man of sorrows by the play’s end is striking. This Lear is the most radically transformed of all the interpretations I’ve seen. It takes a mighty fine actor to pull it off.
Simply put, Scofield is breathtaking. His craggy face and sandpaper growl of a voice effortlessly command the screen. Nobody can touch him when any part of the frame includes him in it. Brook’s most effective special effect is to just keep the camera locked on Scofield’s time-worn monument of a face. Anyone hoping for the humane saintliness this great actor displayed in A Man for all Seasons is in for a shock. His Lear is uncompromising, cruel, cold — yet not beyond redemption. Lear’s redemption is a true trial by fire. The storm sequence is excellent — Brook’s camera trickery (out-of-focus images, rain-splattered lenses) is so effective in conveying harsh cold and soaked-to-the-bone wetness that my mom actually reached for a blanket — in the middle of a mild Northwestern May. Well done.
Brook drops the ball in the Edgar/Edmund scenes. Apparently, Edmund is a character having way too much fun to fit into Brook’s humorlessly pessimistic aesthetic. In the right hands, Edmund can have a disturbing attractiveness on par with Iago or Richard III (witness Raul Julia’s wily seduction of the audience in James Earl Jones’ Lear). Here, though, Brook slices and dices Edmund’s scenes — reassigns lines, reinterprets — and basically renders the whole Edmund subplot a crashing bore (how is that possible??) Frankly, I was counting the minutes until Scofield reappeared. No sense is given of why two powerhouse women, Regan and Goneril, end up at each other’s throats over this guy. Any sequence involving either Edgar or Edmund seem an afterthought to Brook.
Edgar is an inscrutable character. I’ve always had trouble with him and have never seen a truly satisfying performance (the closest is Paul Rhys in Ian Holm’s Lear). As mentioned, the Gloucester/Edgar/Edmund subplot, capable of achieving poignancy almost equal to that of Lear’s plight, is given a superficial treatment here and pales dramatically in comparison to the scenes featuring the frighteningly good Scofield.
In the end, (as well as the beginning and middle) this is Scofield’s show, through and through. I even choked up during his gentle reading of the “Come, let’s away to prison” soliloquy spoken to Cordelia at the play’s end. For a transcendent few minutes Brook settles down and lets the camera linger on Scofield while he does his thing. No pretentious fades, subliminal cuts, or off-kilter compositions. Just Scofield and the eternal words of Shakespeare. This movie is worth watching for that scene alone.