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Though the ventures into filmmaking by the venerable British stage impresario Peter Brook have been occasional, they seldom fail to ignite debate, from the first screen adaptation of Lord of the Flies (1963) to the translation of his theatrical presentation of the jarring Marat/Sade (1967). Having one of the most acclaimed theatre adaptations of Shakespeare's King Lear ever with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1962, Brook revisited the Bard's noted tragedy for the cameras nearly a decade later. Starkly rendered in black and white against foreboding Danish locations, Brook's King Lear (1971) memorably delivered the saga of the aging, self-deluding regent in a manner evocative of Bergman, with the able assistance of an accomplished, stage-trained cast.
From the opening credits, superimposed over a pan of a crowd of distinctive extras frozen like a Brueghel print in relief, we're taken to the throne room of Lear (Paul Scofield), who is ready to parse out his domain to his three daughters, contingent upon their display of fealty. While the eldest, Goneril (Irene Worth) and Regan (Susan Engel), take sufficient pains with their obsequy to please the old man, the youngest, Cordelia (Anne-Lise Gabold), sees no need to cheapen the truth of her affection with such a display. Enraged, Lear decrees her banished, with her birthright to be divided between her sisters.
Once so seated, however, Goneril and Regan's patience with their father's whims increasingly diminishes, and their defiance, to his growing dismay, becomes ever more open. Filial discontent has also stricken one of Lear's loyalists, the Duke of Gloucester (Alan Webb); his calculating bastard son Edmund (Ian Hogg) manages to contrive the exile of his half-brother, the faithful Edgar (Robert Langdon Lloyd). From there, the power grabs of the second generation continue apace; Gloucester is graphically blinded by Regan's ruthless husband Cornwall (Patrick Magee), while Edmund alternately seduces Regan and Goneril in furtherance of his own ends.
The now-fugitive Lear is left to an increasing descent into guilt and madness, fleeing in the company of his Fool (Jack MacGowran), the one person allowed to openly underscore the King's hubris. Cordelia, now married to the King of France, spearheads an invasion with the intent of restoring Lear to the throne; the wandering Gloucester winds up in the care of Edgar, who's been concealed in the guise of an insane beggar. Treacheries are repaid in full as the tale winds to its conclusion.
Scofield, who had been Brook's Lear in the RSC production, shows why he merited the accolades in one of his too-infrequent cinema efforts, delineating a well-measured descent from ingrained arrogance to pitiable powerlessness. The aforementioned cast members gave uniformly solid work, as did Tom Fleming as Kent, whose loyalty to both Lear and Cordelia was sorely tested by the overbearing monarch; Cyril Cusack as Goneril's weak-willed spouse Albany; and Barry Stanton as her calculating major domo Oswald; Worth, Webb and Fleming also reprised their parts from Brooks' staging.
Pulled together for a budget of just under $1 million, utilizing local crew, extras and grant money from the Danish Film Fund, the bleak chiaroscuro of Brook's King Lear was a matter of taste for most film critics. Pauline Kael purportedly referred to the production as Brook's Night of the Living Dead, but the director made uniformly intelligent choices in transferring the play to the film medium. He jettisoned roughly half of the play's narrative, using the occasional interstitial title card to bring the audience up to speed, and his choices in visually rendering the final fates of several of the principals (that Shakespeare had allowed to occur offstage) are striking.
"We are looking at life in cold countries," Brook stated while filming was underway in snowbound locales that evoked a Dark Ages sensibility. "The castles he has found for Albany and Gloucester are small, plain, ill-furnished forts stuck on icy hillsides; the clothes are functional armor against the weather," Nigel Wells wrote for Films and Filming upon the film's release. "'Reason' in Brook's version of the play is as spare and vulnerable an oasis in a world of animalism or madness as the trappings of primitive civilization are in a world terrorized by the elements."
Producers: Michael Birkett, Mogens Skot-Hansen (uncredited)
Director: Peter Brook
Screenplay: Peter Brook; William Shakespeare (play)
Cinematography: Henning Kristiansen
Art Direction: Georges Wakhevitch (production design)
Film Editing: Kasper Schyberg
Cast: Cyril Cusack (Albany), Susan Engel (Regan), Tom Fleming (Kent), Anne-Lise Gabold (Cordelia), Ian Hogg (Edmund), Soren Elung Jensen (Duke of Burgundy), Robert Lloyd (Edgar), Jack MacGowran (Fool), Patrick Magee (Cornwall), Paul Scofield (King Lear).
by Jay S. Steinberg