“King Lear” adaptations set to star two “Atonement” actresses

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Have you been longing desperately for a new film version of Shakespeare’s incredibly amazing, yet incredibly depressing King Lear?

If you have, then not one, but two treats are coming your way. This autumn will see the release of a TV movie adaptation of the play, featuring the cast and director of a recent Royal Shakespeare Company production, including Sir Ian McKellen as Lear, and Atonement actress Romola Garai as his daughter, Cordelia.

In 2010, we should see the release of a feature film adaptation that was recently announced at Cannes, with Sir Anthony Hopkins attached to play the King, and Keira Knightley set to play Cordelia. Recent news reports claim that Naomi Watts and Gwyneth Paltrow have also signed on to play Lear’s older daughters Goneril and Regan, making the film of particular interest to anyone who likes to see a cluster of female gorgeousness and talent.

With that said, I have mixed feelings about both these upcoming movies. For one thing, I can’t help feeling frustrated on Romola Garai’s behalf, as Keira Knightley seems to keep on coming in and stealing her thunder. According to Wikipedia, Garai was nearly cast as Lizzy Bennet in the 2005 adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, before director Joe Wright decided to go with Knightley instead. Then, of course, there was Atonement, where Romola (as Briony) got overshadowed in the posters and promotion by Keira in her green dress. This would be less annoying if I didn’t happen to think that Romola was a much better actress than Keira.

There’s also the fact that I’m not convinced that King Lear offers particularly great roles for female actors. For male ones, yes. Obviously. But let’s take a look at the King’s three daughters. Goneril and Regan are basically harpies whose job it is to flatter and then betray their aging father so that he can curse their wombs. Cordelia is an obnoxiously stubborn and self-righteous girl who for some reason doesn’t say at the beginning, “Dad, I do love you very much but I just think it’s better to show my love by deeds than by flattering exaggerated words,” thereby saving everybody the trouble and tragedy that unfold. It’s not just that I find these women difficult to warm to, it’s that I’m not sure I even find them that interesting to watch.

The two projects do have in their favor the fact that there hasn’t really been a definitive film version of King Lear (in the way that some might consider Olivier’s Hamlet, say, definitive). Perhaps one of the most interesting adaptations to date has been a revisionist look, the 1997 film A Thousand Acres. Based on the Jane Smiley novel, it stars Jessica Lange and Michelle Pfeiffer as Ginny and Rose, and Jennifer Jason Leigh as the unambiguously obnoxious Caroline. In this version, a revealed secret explains — and at least partially justifies — why Rose and Ginny treat their father in the way they do.

What do you think? Are you excited about a new adaptation of King Lear? And are you more likely to see Romola or Keira’s version?

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