Many centuries ago, there was once a monarch, King Lear (Paul Scofield) who was nearing the end of his life, so to take some of the weight of power from his shoulders, he decided that instead of allowing his kingdom to be carved up after his death, he would divide it up himself. He had three daughters, and brought them together at his castle to tell them the good news; Goneril (Irene Worth) and Regan (Susan Engel) were appropriately grateful, but the youngest sibling Cordelia (Anne-Lise Gabold) refused to say anything in thanks, and received a dressing down from her father. But was this because she had foreseen the major problems he was creating with his actions?
Peter Brook is one of the greatest theatre directors of the twentieth century, but as was the case with many such talents, he was coaxed to the film world to make pictures there; not very often, but his adaptations of famed plays and books were respectfully noted, even among those who did not like what he conjured up. Perhaps the most controversial of these was what he did to William Shakespeare's King Lear, which was informed by some stark texts on how to make the Bard relevant, as well as the place of the individual in the universe and how if you took a very sober view of even the greatest of men and women, in the long run none of their achievements meant anything.
So imagine where that leaves the rest of us ordinary folks, but as far as translating such weighty themes to the big screen the main criticism of Brook's approach was that in his drive to craft a scenario as apocalyptic as possible, he sacrificed coherence and wasted Scofield's interpretation of what many believed was his greatest role. It was true to say that over and above the high-falutin' philosophising it was the film's emphasis on a madness taking hold of what had been a peace so precarious that nobody had realised how fragile it was, made its visual channelling of that horror of impending mayhem something of a mishmash of terrible weather and blustering thespians.
Make no mistake, it looked bloody freezing, all shot in Denmark at what looked like a typically bitter winter, so that even when in the latter stages they hit the beach it was the most unforgiving stretch of sand the production could have found. The unspoken influence here was obvious however, not some theatrical theorist but a film director, Ingmar Bergman, whose stark black and white imagery was evoked throughout. If Bergman had become the last word in the human condition as far as film went, it was a little dispiriting to see Brook so slavishly attempt to refashion that same unblinking examination of our foibles, vanities and outright follies and calamities, not that this King Lear was going to play out as if the Swedish master had helmed it himself - but you had to ponder the Scandinavian setting, for a start.
Another issue was that if you did not know the play beforehand, you would be pretty lost by about half an hour in, given Brook's liking for closeups on his cast's faces outlined in the contrast between the dark and light and a depiction of the snow, wind and rain that was more a record of how difficult it was to film under such a climate than it was of dramatic use. You would have an advantage if you had seen Akira Kurosawa's Ran, his eighties filming of Lear, which though chaos was a big part of the storyline, was nevertheless easy enough to follow, unlike the murky imagery you had here. But that may have been the point, that we were all standing on the brink of that chaos, and it took one wrong decision, one display of hubris or overconfidence, to topple over into the abyss, a message that never got old, sad to say, and was paramount in what you took away from Brook's savage invention. On the other hand, you had to be truly dedicated to stay the course to this cynical, sorrowful conclusion.