Ian McKellen has been praised as the Olivier of our age. But for the many Shakespearean roles he has taken on stage, we only have three previous Shakespearean plays with him in film—Macbeth with Judi Dench (1979), Othello in which he plays Iago (1990), and Richard III (1995). He will be 70 in May; this may be his last Shakespeare film. It is silly to say it was worth the wait; we would certainly wish for his Hamlet, Malvolio, Romeo, Anthony, Henry V on film. But his performance here of King Lear is immensely satisfying and at times magical. His supporting cast is no less worthy—pay attention to Edmund’s opening soliloquy, Edgar’s staged madness, and Goneril’s emerging perfidy. Any film of King Lear that works is a great film. It is an experience, a sense of wonder and awe, not to be missed.
Ian McKellen opens his duties as King Lear in full royal dress, the majesty of court, and stirring organ music. To avert “future strife” he gives away his kingdom to two of his daughters and banishes a third, the one he loves best, for failing to flatter him. The mistakes compound from there. By the time he actually calls himself “every inch a king” in the fourth act, he has been reduced to rags, a crown of weeds, and what seems like madness. Yet at this moment he may be, as Edgar suggests, “reason in madness,” the most sane and most human during his long journey of becoming anything but a king. It is a world turned upside down so that it might make sense. At this point he also shares with the blinded Gloucester one of the great stage moments of care and tenderness. We are almost asked to believe that care and tenderness cannot be mixed with matters of family or matters of state. But the ruptured family and the gored state cannot be resisted. In the end Lear and his daughters succumb to politics and what comes with politics in the play: evil, ambition, sex, and death. Why? Trevor Nunn, the film’s director, has Edgar ask in the film’s last moment for an answer from God—he hears nothing.
Director: Trevor Nunn
Producer: Education Broadcasting Organization (Thirteen/WNET)
Run Time: 135 minutes
Filmed in studios in London
Lear Ian McKellen
Goneril Frances Barber
Regan Monica Dolan
Cordelia Romola Garai
Albany Julian Harries
Cornwall Guy Williams
Gloucester William Gaunt
Edmund Phillip Winchester
Edgar Ben Meyjes
Kent Jonathan Hyde
Fool Sylvester McCoy
The McKellen King Lear film may be purchased now at www.shoppbs.org. Put ‘King Lear’ in the search bar at the top of the page.
Ian McKellen was born on 25 May 1939 in Burnley, Lancashire, a market town some 180 miles northwest of London. He was attracted to acting early in life; his first Shakespeare role was Malvolio in Twelfth Night, played as a teenager in what we would call high school. He enrolled and graduated from Cambridge, where he met and worked with (in the university’s Marlowe Society) Derek Jacobi, David Frost, Margaret Drabble, John Cleese, and Trevor Nunn. After university he entered England’s grueling but highly productive repertory system, performing in a different play every two weeks in various regional theaters. Noticed by Michael Codron, McKellen took his first London role in 1964 to play the lead in James Saunders’ A Scent of Flowers. He next played in Zeffirelli’s Much Ado About Nothing with future stars Maggie Smith, Albert Finney, and Derek Jacobi. From here McKellen rather quickly became heir to the throne of Lawrence Olivier. He has played in innumerable stage productions, including many from Shakespeare.
However, his movie career, which began in 1966, did not flourish until his 1995 production of Richard III. With a Hollywood nod, he did Gods and Monsters (1998) and Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings series (begun in 2001), each of which earned him an Oscar nomination. In 2007, at the age of 68, he connected (once again) with Trevor Nunn in a highly acclaimed production of King Lear, staged first at Stratford-on-Avon, and later in London, several places in the United States, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand. This film version was made in 2008 in studios in London. McKellen presently performs the role of Estragon in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot with Patrick Stewart as Vladimir, in regional theater until April, then in London’s Theatre Royale.
Trevor Nunn was born on January 14, 1940, in Ipswich. He attended Cambridge with Ian McKellen and a number of other future stage or literary stars. After an apprenticeship at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, he moved quickly into the tops ranks of English theater, becoming Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1968 at the age of 28. However, he developed a parallel fondness for musicals. In 1981 he directed Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sensational musical Cats. Many collaborations with Webber and other creators of staged musicals followed, including an acclaimed rendition of Porgy and Bess. He thereafter lead a kind of double life as the most famous director of musicals and the equally famous director of stage and television productions of Shakespeare and other prominent stage plays. He did resign from the RSC in 1986 and took up a third related, but distinct genre, opera. At roughly the same time he began film direction, first of stage plays, then of screen plays developed from Hedda Gabler and Twelfth Night, among others. In 1996 he resumed duties as an Artistic Director, this time at Great Britain’s National Theatre, retiring in 2003. He resumed his long-standing collaboration with Ian McKellen for a run at King Lear and The Seagull which toured the world in 2007. He directed a film version of King Lear that was released in England in late 2008 and will be broadcast in the United State by PBS on 25 March 2009.