“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!” bellows King Lear into the blustering gusts on the heath. In the Shakespeare play, Lear is a pre-Roman Celtic king dressed in period robes; in the BBC update now streaming on Amazon, we have Anthony Hopkins in a heavy peacoat. And yet, it feels just as regal. Lear is always coveted by the finest actors, and Hopkins owns the role.
Any Shakespearean update must validate its existence, and Richard Eyre updates the story for a 21st-century, highly militarized London. The aging Lear calls together his family to divide his kingdom among his three daughters: Goneril (Emma Thompson), Regan (Emily Watson), and the youngest, Cordelia (Florence Pugh). The two eldest daughters profess their love and allegiance to their father in flowery terms, but Cordelia, put off by their transparent brown-nosing, refuses to follow suit. Angered by what he deems a betrayal by his favorite, Lear disowns her and must contend with the results. True to the Shakespearean tragedy, the rest of the movie involves gnashing of teeth, fabulous tirades, disguises, double-crosses, violence, and death.
The movie maintains Shakespeare’s original language in its modern setting and, for the most part, it works. Seeing the cast in snazzy contemporary clothes or military fatigues evokes a grand yet heavy feeling consistent with the play’s tone, but the musical blank verse makes everything feel a bit off kilter. Richard Loncraine did something similar with the 1995 film “Richard III” starring Ian McKellan, which was set in a fascistic Britain of the 1930s; here the military trappings are present tense, and that tension may make it more difficult to combine the modern setting with the Elizabethan language. (Similarly, Baz Luhrmann’s take on “Romeo + Juliet” straddled those anachronisms through its more fantastical nature.)
The modern changes can benefit the production, as when Lear goes mad and starts wearing fingerless gloves and pushing around a laden shopping cart. This familiar visual of a homeless person provides a brilliant current example of how easily a person can be broken. The contemporary trappings can also emphasize the darkness in human nature, such as when one elegantly dressed character, who looks as if she belongs on the red carpet, is splattered with blood after a hands-on act of brutality.
Hopkins is mesmerizing as the flailing sovereign who careens from regal and proud to ravening and mad, and finally to tired and sentimental. King Lear is not a role for subtlety or unchewed scenery, and Hopkins’ chompers get plenty of exercise. He is matched by Thompson as the ambitious and lustful Goneril, who provides the production with a physical blow of elegance and power. The rest is a who’s who of British costume actors including the ubiquitous Tobias Menzies, former “Doctor Who” star Christopher Eccleston, and “Downton Abbey” butler Jim Carter. Among these greats, the breakout is John Macmillan (“Silk,” “Chewing Gum”) as the Earl of Gloucester’s scheming and illegitimate son. He commands the musicality of Shakespeare, making it feel modern and wholly comprehensible; some of the most poisonous soliloquies become transfixing.
Eyre’s visual language is distinct. Lush in its interiors and austere in the exteriors, we see the color palette become increasingly bleak as the movie continues. Goneril’s wardrobe begins with stunning and richly toned gowns, and devolve into glamorous neutrals. She has become a sepia version of herself.
The visual control and restraint provide a welcoming respite from the overblown emotion that are part and parcel of any “King Lear.” Two other projects come to mind that approximate this controlled look and tone. PBS’ “King Charles III” is Mike Bartlett’s imagining of what will happen when Queen Elizabeth II dies, but written in contemporary blank verse. As a completely original tale, he’s able to more consistently blend the modernity while hinting at the grandeur of Shakespeare. And in 2009, NBC had the short-lived but beloved drama “Kings,” a take on the biblical King David set in a modern-day absolute monarchy that featured Ian McShane delivering stately and stylized dialogue. As with “King Charles III,” it was far more successful in creating a seamless world blending old and new. Unfortunately for its time, the show’s experimental nature wasn’t embraced, and it was swiftly canceled.
“King Lear” starts to break down near the last third with a choppiness that takes a toll on the logic of the piece. Still, the performances hold it together; this play has always been focused on human suffering. Amazon’s “King Lear” is by no means a definitive adaptation of what is arguably the Bard’s finest tragedy, but it is a thrilling and entertaining one.
”King Lear” is currently available to stream on Amazon.