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King Lear

Director: Grigori Kozintsev

U.S.S.R.| 1971. SUBTITLED. BLACK AND WHITE. ANAMORPHIC. 139 MIN.


Grigori Kozintsev’s reputation as a Shakespearean was high when he turned to this great but often clumsily problematic play about old age and its discontents, which he had staged in Leningrad as far back as 1941, and which would become his last film. As with ‘Hamlet’, he filmed in Estonia, working with the leading Estonian actor Juri Jarvet (who had just appeared, appropriately, in Kalle Kiisk’s banned ‘Madness’). But here the scale is epic, with landscape playing an important part in Kozintsev’s conception of this ‘tragedy among people’. Despite the opportunity to open out the settings of Lear’s wanderings, after he renounces his power, Kozintsev and his long-serving designer Evgeni Enei resisted the temptation to make this apocalyptic collapse of civilisation merely spectacular, insisting that ‘the centre of attention was to be focused on people and on the philosophy of the tragedy’. His published diaries, admiringly introduced by Peter Brook, would later reveal just how widely he had sought guidance, taking ideas from Dostoevsky and Gogol, from the Book of Job and from an outbreak of plague he had witnessed as a child in Kiev—even from Mack Sennett, when he describes ‘Lear’ as a Keystone chase. Here, almost everything from his long artistic career and from the experience of living through revolution and terror seemed to contribute to a Lear that has impressed many as the finest ever achieved on screen, with Jarvet as the king and Oleg Dal as the Fool simply unforgettable.—Ian Christie.

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