Sunday, 31 October 2010
King Lear is the third Shakespeare film to be critiqued by Film: Ab Initio; it is also the third Shakespeare film to be produced by a different country (A Midsummer’s Night Dream was made in America and the Tempest was made in the UK). Therefore, in the early silent era of cinema, Shakespeare functions as a prism through which the various countries bend cinema’s white light.
The Italian film company which produced this version of King Lear, Film D’Arte Italiana, placed significant emphasis on both the cinematography and costume design. The stencilled colouring adds depth to both, providing the film with an extra layer of depth. The importance of such details in early cinema cannot be over-exaggerated; for example, when the film is contrasted with Vitagraph’s 1909 film A Midsummer’s Night Dream, the gulf in quality is apparent (unfortunately, the deterioration of the print of King Lear available online is more significant than that available on the Silent Shakespeare DVD) .
For example, just before Cordelia’s death, the camera focuses on both the gentleman in the foreground of the scene and the soldiers who are in the distance, standing underneath a stone bridge (see image below). This stunning image literally expands the space on the canvas the filmmaker has available to him and furthers the separation between film and theatre.
The colouring plays a significant role in establishing the film as a cinematic experience rather than a print recording of a play. The symbolism of the opening sequence, where the fool sits on Lear’s throne before Lear enters the courtyard himself, is enhanced by the contrast in colouring of their respective outfits (see image below).
As modern viewers, we are often surprised when we encounter colouring on such early film. However, according to the commentary on the Silent Shakespeare DVD: between 1895 and 1930, 80% of films were projected in something other than black and white. Although the DVD suggests that this figure may be slightly exaggerated, there is little doubt that much of this colouring has failed to survive. This is because the dyes used were highly mutable and prone to fade.
We have witnessed colouring before in early Méliès films and in Feuillade’s The Fairy of the Surf, but not to the extent that it is on show here. And given the pathos of the subject matter it is often richly evocative; for example, the barren wilderness of the trees behind Lear as he stumbles in his madness add a sense of desolation that make Lear’s pain even more acute.
The cast of the film were renowned theatrical actors, yet they avoid the pitfall of overplaying their roles to compensate for a lack of spoken word. Ermete Novelli’s portrayal of Lear is the largest performance we have seen on screen to date. There are moments when his performance is too grandiose, but such moments are few and far between. The brevity of the film forces a violent shift in his emotions, but his Lear is compassionate, overbearing and deeply endearing.
Perhaps the most tender moment we have witnessed in any film so far occurs when Cordelia is reunited with her father. It may be a moment embedded in the collective conscience of the English canon, but the scene is shot in a cinematic rather than theatrical manner. Novelli’s Lear lies silently as Francesca Bertini’s Cordelia glides towards her father and gently embraces him. The seamless of chemistry of these two actors exacerbates that most painful moment when Lear hold his dead daughter in his arms.
The film focuses solely on the main narrative strand of the play and strings together a more coherent narrative than any of the theatrical or literary adaptations we have witnessed thus far. This is all the more impressive given the difficulty of its source in comparison with much of the more comic material that was adapted to a lesser degree of success by earlier filmmakers.
The only precedent we have of film tackling tragedy is Nerone (another Italian film), which shared similar stellar production values and a compelling narrative too. It will be interesting to observe Italian cinema’s growth over the next decade and witness its tackling of similarly ambitious subject matter.