King Lear (1971) – Film Review

Grigori Kozintsev's 1971 adaptation of the great Shakespearean tragedy KING LEAR is released on DVD for the next generation of world cinema lovers to bask in...

Grigori Kozintsev’s King Lear, subtitled in English, brings Lear to the big screen with exquisite effect. Under Kozintsev’s steady hand, his 1964 version of Hamlet was critically acclaimed and once again, he delivers purist Shakespeare to arguably greater effect.

The Bard’s tragedy charts the descent into madness of the ageing British King Lear. As the monarch wishes to retire from ruling, he vows to divide his kingdom between his three daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia based on who loves him the most. In a fit of misinformed rage, Cordelia is disinherited and Lear’s loyal servant Kent banished as Cordelia is married to the King of France.

Alongside this family feud, the scheming illegitimate son of nobleman Gloucester plots to eradicate Gloucester’s favoured legitimate son, Edgar. His plan succeeds as Edmund is welcomed with open arms by his previously contemptuous father and Edgar is chased from his mansion. Lear quickly realises he has been deceived by Goneril and Regan as they fight to reduce his power. Lear, bewildered by his daughters’ treachery, flees to a heath with his fool and the disguised Kent. They take shelter from a great thunderstorm surrounded by the disguised Edmund.

Gloucester, appalled at Lear’s treatment, aids the ailing King and is subsequently accused of treason, blinded and turned out to the countryside. Depressed, Gloucester appeals to a wandering madman to lead him to help him commit suicide. Unbeknownst to him, the madman is the disguised Edmund who agrees to Gloucester’s demand, caring for his father as he passes away in his arms. Meanwhile, Cordelia lands in Cornwall with French troops to rally against her sisters and save her father. As love triangles and treachery abound, the film builds to an exhilarating, but ultimately devastating, climax.

Kozintsev’s success in this imagining is not solely down to his eye for a compelling camera angle and use of the visual surroundings to converse with the audience as much as the screenplay, but also due to some excellent casting. The role of Lear is seen as one of the most revered and complex Shakespearean characters and Jüri Järvet shines with supernova brilliance as his exquisitely weighted performance charts the gradual descent into madness and stellar fits of rage delivered with explosive emotional effect. One of the most convincing parts is also delivered by his fool who never releases the façade of acid tongued maniac, Oleg Dahl excelling in a surprisingly tricky role without becoming a tiresome caricature.

Through the supporting cast, it is impossible to find a weak link with equal parts good, in Cordelia (Valentina Shendrikova), Edmund (Regimantas Adomaitis) and Gloucester (Karlis Sebris) going up against Edgar (Leonhard Merzin), Goneril (Elza Radzina) and Regan (Galina Volchek). In short, yet again, Kozintsev has delivered traditional Shakespeare with great success, even more so than his Hamlet adaptation mainly due to his cast of effective and powerful actors handling the source material in wonderful balance.


Best performance: Jüri Järvet as Lear is perfect throughout and his final scene is not one for the emotionally faint hearted.

Best scene: As mentioned above, his despair and anguish at having his most beloved and wronged daughter stolen away is truly devastating.

Best quote: ‘Have more than thou showest,
Speak less than thou knowest,
Lend less than owest,
Ride more than thou goest,
Learn more than thou trowest’

Watch this if you liked: Hamlet, any Shakespeare in the style and era it was first produced.

One of Megan Fox’s many tattoos is a paraphrased quote from King Lear: ‘We will all laugh at gilded butterflies’.

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