The color slowly drains out of the new King Lear as it goes along, as if to formalize its depiction of a nation bled dry by its own awfulness. Adapted and directed by Richard Eyre, this BBC Two and Amazon co-production is a modernized version of William Shakespeare’s epic about a doddering old ruler (Anthony Hopkins), who decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, Goneril, (Emma Thompson), Regan (Emily Watson), and Cordelia (Florence Pugh) based on how fawningly they express their love for him — a fit of narcissism that jump-starts multiple plots to overthrow Lear, and sends the kingdom spiraling into chaos, war, and ruin. Any production of Lear could feel relevant if mounted during a period when the world’s most powerful man was a foggy-minded 72-year-old whose policies seemed driven by greed, cruelty, a bottomless thirst for acclaim, an eagerness to involve his children in government, and a terror of changing times, but Eyre sharpens the parallels by setting his film in an alternative, vaguely dystopian universe that feels like a premonition of where Western civilization is headed. For its first half-hour, this Lear plays like a stealthy editorial cartoon about Trumpism, conceived for plausible deniability, so that we can hear lines like “I am a man more sinned against than sinning” and “The worst is not, so long as we can say ‘This is the worst” and think of them as intentional or coincidental commentary, depending on our biases.
A climactic duel trades swords for modern MMA fighting techniques, the characters all wear modern clothes (including recent vintage military uniforms), and they travel by motor vehicle and aircraft instead of horses, but key action still occurs in and around ancient spaces — castles and manors, mainly. The juxtaposition of new and old encourages us to conflate royal despots with 21st-century politicians and CEOs who carry on like tribal chieftains and maintain security forces that are essentially private armies. As portrayed by Hopkins, Lear comes off as a decadent corporate oligarch who has somehow conquered all of England and surrounded himself with square-jawed soldiers who kill and torture on his command. Their ruthlessness makes the soft-bellied, physically helpless old man feel macho by association. A chilling scene early on finds Lear, lounging about in his castle while surrounded by soldiers, humiliating Goneril’s steward Oswald, played by Christopher Eccleston; the combination of Eccelston’s prim demeanor and posture and Lear’s relentlessly jocular needling gives the moment a hint of impending homophobic murder. When Goneril enters the room moments later, the men murmur somewhat dismissively, as if the arrival of a woman in an all-male space made them close ranks to reaffirm which gender is boss.
Soon enough, though, Eyre’s Lear settles into a more traditional groove, notwithstanding the modern embellishments. Eyre has cut the text to the bone, sometimes to its detriment, though the edits elevate the play’s parallel, secondary story — the bastard Edmund (John McMillan) plotting against his father, the Earl of Gloucester (Jim Broadbent) and his half-brother Edgar (Andrew Scott) — in fascinating ways. This streamlined Lear jumps so regularly between the two major, occasionally overlapping storylines —Lear and his daughters, and the Earl and his sons — that we think of them as mirrors, even more so than we might while watching a full-length theatrical production. The characters are simplified, chiseled down into nuggets of psychology in ways that make them seem to blend into each other and assume each other’s plot functions. This is sometimes marvelous, as when Lear’s figurative blindness is compared to the Earl’s actual blindness, or when Lear is reduced to a nomadic fool, pushing a shopping cart in a marketplace like a homeless person while wearing the fedora that once sat on the head of his actual Fool (Karl Johnson). There’s even a moment when Edgar, walking along in the muddy moors in disguise as “Poor Tom,” laments the awfulness of life in voice over, while Eyre crosscuts between him and the Earl as he’s escorted from the scene of his blinding.
On the minus side, although this Lear makes sure to stage most of the set pieces you might’ve heard about even if you’ve never read or seen the play — such as the blinding scene; the duel between Edmund and Edgar; Lear, the Fool, and the Earl of Kent (Jim Carter) wandering in the rain; and Lear’s tearful reconciliation with Cordelia — without enough connective tissue, they don’t land as hard as they should, despite the undeniable panache that Eyre and his crew bring to the staging and filming.
We should acknowledge here that an unexpurgated Lear is troublesome for theater companies no matter how much text they preserve. It’s a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t play. Delete too much and key plot points become incomprehensible, but if you leave most or all of it alone, the story is still hard to follow because of the often-frustrating decisions Shakespeare made to begin with. As in Hamlet, another of the Bard’s extra-long, shaggy tragedies, there are lots of narrative cul-de-sacs, loose ends, and seeming redundancies, and characters that duplicate ideas in ways that can feel alternately revelatory and pointless. Many emotionally significant confrontations and acts of violence occur offscreen only to be summarized later (the Fool pretty much vanishes halfway through, functionally replaced by Edgar in his Poor Tom disguise). To the 21st-century eye, these may seem like mistakes — does YouTube have a “Shakespearean goofs” channel? — even if they open up fresh avenues of interpretation for spectators who’ve committed to Shakespeare’s aesthetic. There have been many effective instances of a film reducing the plot of a Shakespeare comedy or drama to the barest essentials and somehow still putting across the intellectual and emotional core of the piece. One of my favorites is Orson Welles’ Othello, a 91-minute adaptation of a three-hour text that finds visual equivalents for many of the concepts Shakespeare expressed in dialogue. This Lear is not on Welles’s level — few Shakespeare adaptations are — but it has strong justifications for every alteration it makes, even when the results frustrate. (A third-act string of deaths happen so close together, and mainly offscreen, that I shuttled back to make sure I didn’t inadvertently skip scenes.) Eyre’s tight but rarely intrusive closeups and Ben Smithard’s digital widescreen photography help unify a movie that might otherwise feel too fragmented and rushed. Smithard gives the whole thing an infusion of grey — subtle at first, overt later — as if England’s overcast skies had infected the buildings, the characters, and the land itself.
As is usually the case with top-drawer BBC Shakespeare adaptations, the actors are terrific. Thompson’s scheming flirtatiousness as Goneril, Watson’s wide-eyed bloodlust as Regan, Jim Carter’s basso-voiced hardiness as the Earl of Kent, and Tobias Menzies’ militarily precise sadism as the Duke of Cornwall all make powerful impressions. Florence Pugh does a better job than most actresses in the rather thankless role of Cordelia, a character whose decency can feel more like a rhetorical flourish than a character trait. (How did a family that awful produce a woman that honorable, anyway?) Hopkins’ Lear is unrelentingly peevish and nasty throughout the first two-thirds of the play, so much so that when he finally suffers in exile and then softens and becomes more functional and self-aware, the miseries visited upon him in the last act feel even more like karmic payback than they might in longer productions. Recent adaptations often present Lear as suffering from a more scientifically defined version of Alzheimer’s disease, and this one is no exception. Anyone who’s seen loved ones grapple with the condition will flinch in recognition when Lear inappropriately touches Goneril (not registering that she’s his daughter) and verbally stumbles his way toward recognizing Cordelia (Hopkins’ reading of “I think this lady to be my child” is devastating).
Ultimately, and perhaps surprisingly, the Earl-Edgar-Edmund story hits just as hard, partly because the conflicts were already laid out so precisely by Shakespeare — and so clearly marked as a secondary plot — and partly because the three actors give slightly flatter performances than the rest, almost like what you’d expect to see in an action thriller or gangster picture. Jim Broadbent’s Gloucester is an oblivious jerk early on and a gelded patriarch later, his blindness a biblical punishment for his failure to see the damage he caused by embracing one son and casually rejecting and humiliating the other. Scott’s Edgar moves almost seamlessly from astronomer-climatologist to framed fugitive and finally to Fool-replacement and fratricidal combatant; it works because the performance has been conceived in almost entirely physical terms, conveyed through closeups of Scott’s confused and then tormented face and long shots of his increasingly ragged and dirty form as it lopes across desolate landscapes. With his probing stare, gleeful proclamations, and fourth-wall-breaking monologues, Macmillan’s Edmund would get along swimmingly with Iago and Richard III, and Eyre’s decision to cast an actor of color in the role gives certain moments and lines a secondary layer of meaning (particularly a sneering reference to him as a “half-blooded fellow”).
However you feel about the particulars of Eyre’s adaptation, this Lear captures the heart of the play. It’s a vision of rule collapsing and both individuals and institutions losing their minds, pitting brother against brother, sister against sister, father against children, friend against friend, in an exhausting struggle to hang onto scraps of an old order that was already starting to crumble before Lear first unrolled his map and divvied up the countryside. It’s as political a production as it needs to be, and at its best, it feels as current and as timeless as a nightmare.