3. Grigory Kozintsev’s King Lear (1971)
It has been said that Hamlet is the greater play but King Lear the greater tragedy, because Lear almost achieves redemption (when he is reconciled with his beloved Cordelia, who he had foolishly exiled) only for it to be snatched away from him at the very end (when she is killed by the evil Edmund). Perhaps that is why two films of King Lear make my top three; in cinema, it is often “happy endings” that are celebrated, but in Shakespearean cinema (and Shakespeare in general) it is the tragic endings that are the most powerful.
Kozintsev’s Lear was based on the Russian translation of the play by Boris Pasternak, the author of Doctor Zhivago; Pasternak was credited by Kozintsev as a co-writer of the screenplay, along with Shakespeare. And it was filmed in the desolate flat landscapes of Estonia, at the time a satellite Soviet state. But like any Lear, or indeed any production of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, it is only as good as its titular hero, and in Jüri Järvet (a great Estonian actor who appeared in Tarkovsky’s Solaris, among many other films) Kozintsev had a monumental Lear, notwithstanding his slender frame.
The most powerful scenes in the film, and they are among the most powerful in all Shakespearean cinema, are where the addled, indeed maddened, Lear confronts “mad Tom” on the blasted heath. But instead of confronting one homeless, near-naked man on a stage, Kozintsev’s Lear sees hundreds, if not thousands, of destitute people – the populace that he has failed to look after as King, just as the great Soviet “Kings” had failed to take care of, or even feed, their people.