King Lear review: Amazon’s latest adaptation has an impressive cast


King Lear looks to divide his kingdom between his three daughters, but disowns and banishes his dearest and youngest daughter Cordelia when she fails to flatter him with her love. Both family and state fall into chaos as Lear goes mad and conspiracies are hatched.

Family, friends, and allies are called to the appropriately imposing Tower of London for King Lear (Anthony Hopkins) to divide his kingdom between his three daughters and divest himself of care and responsibility in his old age. He makes it a competition between them to say who loves him most. Goneril (Emma Thompson) and Regan (Emily Watson) flatter and grovel in order to curry his favor for the larger inheritance, but his youngest Cordelia (Florence Pugh) refuses to patronize him.

She asks why her sisters have husbands if all their love is for their father, saying that she loves Lear according to her bond as a child, but reserves half her love for her husband. This is reasonable, but Lear flies into a fury and disowns her. Her suitors, Kings of Burgundy (Simon Manyonda) and France (Chukwudi Iwuji), are called forth and asked who will still have her without a dowry. Burgundy will not, but France gladly takes her. The Earl of Kent (Jim Carter) tries to reason with Lear and is banished himself. He refuses to abandon his king and returns in disguise to become his servant.

Meanwhile, Edmund (John Macmillan), the bastard of the Earl of Gloucester (Jim Broadbent), schemes to inherit his father’s lands and titles by convincing him that his illegitimate son, Edgar (Andrew Scott), is conspiring to kill him. Edgar is forced on the run and disguises himself as a mad beggar named Poor Tom. For seeming to defend his father’s life, Edmund is made the beneficiary of Gloucester’s estate and taken into the service of Regan’s husband, the Duke of Cornwall (Tobias Menzies). Edmund quickly begins affairs with both Regan and Goneril, playing them against each other.

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Greedy as Goneril and Regan are, neither of them want the care of their father and his entourage of 100 rowdy knights. Lear drinks and carouses without consideration for his daughters’ households and rages against them both for chiding him, trying to play one against the other to gain the best placement.

They ask at first that he dismiss half his party so they can better accommodate him, but as he bullies and abuses and manipulates them both, they lower the number to zero to spite him. Uncontrollable in his rage and madness, Lear marches out into the bursting storm while his uncaring daughters close their doors against him. Gloucester, charged at for pain of death not to offer aid to Lear, tracks him down and sends him to Dover for safety from his daughters’ warmongering.

Gloucester is charged with treason for his communications with Cordelia in France and has his eyes gouged out by Cornwall and Regan. Edgar, in disguise, saves his father from suicide, but as the country devolves into a war between France and Lear’s kingdom, Gloucester is overcome by weariness and dies.

Meanwhile, Lear recovers from his madness with Cordelia in France, but both are apprehended and taken to jail by Goneril and Regan. Edmund sends an assassin to kill them both as Edgar confronts him with his treason and kills him. Goneril, in her grief, kills herself and confesses to poisoning Regan out of jealousy. Soldiers are sent to stop the assassin but are too late to save Cordelia and King Lear dies of grief.

This is, by necessity, a rather abridged synopsis of a rather dense and complex play. King Lear is usually afforded a solid three hours in performance and considering this adaptation weighs in at a mere 115 minutes, it manages to move the action along while still hitting all the right notes. Director Richard Eyre is no stranger to King Lear, having produced a stage-to-screen adaptation starring Ian Holm in 1998.

Here he has the benefit of a made-for-TV production that can go anywhere from the Tower of London to the cliffs of Dover and makes good use of every location. In a production that can often drag on wearily toward the end as plotters and beggars wander the English wilderness, Eyre’s streamlined script wastes not a single word while still giving the Bard his due.

Anthony Hopkins tackled the part of King Lear some 30 years ago but said he “soon realized I wasn’t going to hit the mark” and left stage acting soon after. But after recently working with Eyre and Ian McKellan on The Dresser (2015) and performing parts of Lear for the film, he felt he might be ready to return to the part, with the benefit of both age and experience behind him. “I was trying too hard the first time. Now I have more experience, and I wanted to prove I had the stamina and the chutzpah.

As Goethe said, every old man knows what Lear is about.” And Hopkins clearly has the chutzpah to spare as the 80-year-old actor kept up a raging storm of his own making. His Lear is unpredictable and cunning, mad and yet manipulative. While his temper borders insanity, his tactics display intelligence. As his madness grows he also has quiet moments of lucidity and self-awareness, moments of doubt in which he questions his sanity. He is powerful, but brought low by his own furies and all the more pitiful for it.

The rest of the cast is phenomenal and perfectly chosen. I have my fan favorites, of course, as might any fan of British television – namely Christopher Eccleston (Doctor Who, The Leftovers)  as Oswald and Andrew Scott (Sherlock)  as Edgar. Oswald is a relatively small part and serves as Goneril’s right-hand man. Eccleston’s Oswald is humorously prissy, prone to gossip and useless in a fight.

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Scott’s Edgar is often so shrill and strange and over the top that I had a hard time making sense of him. But once Edgar witnessed the dignity with which his elders bore their struggles, he discarded his Poor Tom persona and not only faced his own misfortunes with grace but shouldered the pain of others. The contrast between his cowardly, hysterical flight and his solemn, impassioned final speech is incredibly striking and affecting.

What did you think of Amazon’s King Lear? Be sure to tell us in the comments below!