Korol Lir, is a remarkable achievement. Many times, it’s hard for audiences (mainly American) to watch any film with subtitles. Now add to the fact that Grigori Kozintsev filmed this version of Shakespeare’s play in 1971 at the height of the Soviet Union, and in black and white. With that knowledge, you might ask what makes this film watchable. To put it simply: it’s own brilliance.
Much like a stage production of any play, the landscape and general setting of the film is bare. Set locations provide significant amounts of open space and don’t display much to view; even the outfits are bare and are outside of the scope of focus. Instead, Kozintsev focus on character mannerisms and facial expressions. In the opening sequences the audience is made aware of the relationship King Lear has had with his people: one that has not been pleasant. His daughters distance themselves from him and it doesn’t feel as if they have much of an emotional connection with their father. That in-itself is heartbreaking.
Jüri Järvet portrays Lear and was the perfect fit for the part. From the get-go, he oozes madness and chaos; not only in the personality of Lear, but physically as well. His long, white hair seems to sway as it pleases. It gives the audience a sense that Lear prefers to let aspects of his life draw-out rather than fix them. That quality that Lear possesses represents the inner tension and conflict that Lear is faced with every day. An element that exclusively expresses Lear’s madness comes from the use of sound design.
Throughout the film’s run time, the audience is presented with moments of very little dialogue that are often drawn-out. To fill this gap, especially while blocking movements, Eduard Vanunts (sound department) brilliantly focuses on the sound of footsteps marching across the surface under the characters; this is executed both indoors and outdoors. For example: Lear pacing around the castle compared to Lear walking across the barren landscape covered front-to-back in dirt and loose gravel. In scenes without human footsteps, the direction and focus is placed on the moving wagons and even animals.
One scene in particular shows a group of wild horses galloping in the landscape. There are of course transitional elements that showcase others as well; shots often focusing on animals in their natural habitat. The reasoning for this can be explained by an event towards the end of the movie. When Lear finds Cordelia hanging from the bell tower, he howls in pain. The subtitles even read “Howl, Howl, Howl” before Lear speaks out about his professed love for his deceased daughter; subtly inferring that humans are just like animals: chaotic and unpredictable. It’s these tiny moments that make this adaptation successful in the way Shakespeare intended: utterly tragic.
While examining the text and screen version on a deeper level, I found it easier to understand why Shakespeare is still relevant in today’s culture. If nothing else, for the simple reason that his tragedies, especially King Lear, quench the existential thirst that modern audiences look for in their films. King Lear paves the way for audiences to think about humankind and their relationship with themselves and the universe; with death even. Kozintsev’s adaptation stands the test of time and is an overall successful version of Shakespeare’s original play.