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DVD: Kozintsev's Hamlet and King Lear | reviews, news & interviews

DVD: Kozintsev's Hamlet and King Lear

DVD: Kozintsev's Hamlet and King Lear

Supreme masterpieces of Shakespeare on screen in any language, stunningly performed and evocatively filmed

Grigori Kozintsev's 'King Lear': the film could surely only have been made by someone who had experienced Russia's ravages in two world wars

Forget Branagh and Mel Gibson, set aside thoughts of Olivier: Innokenti Smoktunovsky is the most original Hamlet you'll see on screen. As for King Lear, don't bother with Peter Brook's woeful attempts to be the British Eisenstein in a true cinedisaster; another master of the Russian cinema, Grigori Kozintsev, knew much better what to do in 1971.

It's astonishing to see this great survivor of the Soviet cinema, so lively in his early collaborations with Leonid Trauberg as silent film switched to sound - The New Babylon, Alone, the Maxim trilogy - rise to his greatest challenges in the 1960s and Seventies. His no less masterly composer from those early days, Shostakovich, came with him too: hardly being allowed the same role in Hamlet that was accorded Prokofiev by Eisenstein in Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible, but attaining idiosyncratic late magnificence in King Lear, one of several endgames in his music.

The two films have different values, though both are faithful to their source. I can't fault a single performance in the Hamlet, which has Smoktunovsky play out his "To be or not to be" speech memorably on steps by the sea, while the Lear, Estonian actor Jüri Järvet, is more of an acquired taste: a whimsical, hardly titanically wrathful gnome-like old man, but deeply pitiable in the later scenes. Here the barren, ravaged landscapes and the castle which plays an important role in Hamlet dominate, along with the sense of "nature's germans tumbling all together" in the terrifying tempest scene with its bolting wild horses. The last 20 minutes, in which Shostakovich's music rises to crucial heights of Dies Irae terror, are truly apocalyptic and could surely only have been made by someone who had experienced Russia's ravages in two world wars.

This presentation by Mr Bongo has only the bare bones; my Ruscico copies also have documentaries made at the time around the Hamlet and an interview with the Regan of the later film, Galina Volchek. But Ruscico also spread onto two DVDs for each filmed play, imposed an Irish-accented voiceover which it's hard - though not impossible - to remove, and allowed some of the subtitles to obcure the main image. Which, thankfully, they don't here, with the widescreen format in decent crispness and with good sound preserved. And, yes, the English text is Shakespeare and not Russian re-translated, in case you were worried.

The last 20 minutes of this Lear, in which Shostakovich's music rises to crucial heights of Dies Irae terror, are truly apocalyptic


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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With respect, David, I love both of Kozintsev's adaptations, but I can't see how one could compare his Lear to Brook's without mentioning Paul Scofield's near-definitive performance, which owed as much to Brook's theatrical conception as it did to Scofield's acting genius.

Sorry, Emmanuel,I just didn't get Scofield's performances at all - to me it contributed to the general leadenness of the Brook film - but then I suspect that there is no such thing as a 'near-definitive' Lear, just what we individually expect from the character. Jacobi's seemed to me to cover the most bases, but then again there were folk who didn't like it at all. What I love about the Kozintsev film is the masterly pacing, the light and the shade.

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