Looking at a Russian version of King
Lear brings up an interesting question. Shakespeare's brilliance
in storytelling makes him an author for all times... but what about
for all places? One problem with translating Shakespeare is that his
genius lies to a great extent in his mastery of the language. He
freely adopted plots and characters from history or other plays or
stories, making classics for all time from material that, in other
hands, was merely ordinary. It is in Shakespeare's language that he
brings his characters to life in all their subtlety and complexity,
and it's in his language that he sets the drama of humanity so
vividly before us. In order to translate Shakespeare properly, the
translator would need to be the equal of Shakespeare... and I don't
think any translator would suggest that he's on a par with the Bard!
So what do we make of this film?
I'd have to say that Grigori
Kozintsev's 1971 version of King Lear is an.... interesting
attempt. It's not what I'd call successful, though.
I would first of all venture to say
that there is little point for an English-speaking viewer to watch a
Russian King Lear, seeing as all the beauty and power of the
language is completely lost. What's left is the realization of the
story: how well does this version of Lear bring out the essential
themes and power of the story? How well acted is it?
Apart from the language issue,
though, it's still not a particularly effective rendition. The acting
is stilted and overly melodramatic even from the very beginning, and
it only gets more so as the story develops. Yuri Yarvet's rendition
of Lear, in particular, might be the kind of performance that would
work on stage, but on film, where we see everything up close and have
no need for extra theatricality to carry the emotion, it feels like
too much right from the start. Frankly, the whole vision of the film
is melodramatic to the point of making Shakespeare's serious insight
into the characters and situations vanish in a puff of overacting.
The musical score is another aspect
of this version that is interesting, but not in a good way. Dmitri
Shostakovich's score is, indeed, "stirring" as the
back-cover copy suggests, but it stirred me to feel intense dislike
of the music rather than anything else. The score feels overheated
(though in that respect it matches the acting) and weirdly
inappropriate (especially at the start of the second part). It's part
and parcel of a generally overdone, overheated tone that takes
Shakespeare's insights on madness and suffering and makes them appear
Peter Sellars provides some comments
that give a context for this King Lear, particularly in
reference to how Shakespeare's political plays were not permitted to
be performed in Soviet Russia. In that sense, this film version of
King Lear may offer some insights into Russian culture,
politics, and art... but I wouldn't go so far as to suggest that it's
a particularly good realization of Shakespeare's play for
King Lear is presented in its
original widescreen aspect ratio, but it's not anamorphically
enhanced. The black-and-white image has been presented in a nicely
clean transfer, with no apparent noise or print flaws showing up in
the image, except for a vertical print flaw that appears early on.
There's some pixellation and edge enhancement, but overall the image
looks quite satisfactory.
The DVD starts off rather
inauspiciously, with an unpleasantly piercing quality to the opening
music. Fortunately, the soundtrack overall is satisfactory, with the
dialogue sounding clear and clean. Some subtle popping noises appear
in the background of the sound, but it's not very noticeable.
Optional English subtitles are included, appearing in the "black
bar" area below the picture.
The one special feature is a
substantial one: there's about an hour's worth of interviews with
Peter Sellars, a film, theater, and opera director who sat down in
2006 to give his thoughts on this version of King Lear. I
found Sellars to be rather grating, but he has some interesting
insights into the film. A booklet is also included with the DVD,
giving some background on the filmmaker and several excerpts from his
book about the making of King Lear.
I love Shakespeare, but this version
of King Lear just didn't do it for me. It's undoubtedly
significant in the history of Russian cinema, but taken as a
rendition of Shakespeare's play, in its own right, it doesn't have
anything much to offer. Unless you are a serious Russian cinemaphile,
I'd give this Lear a wide berth. Skip it.