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By Phil Hall | February 21, 2007

Soviet director Grigori Kozintsev followed up the triumph of his 1964 masterpiece “Hamlet” with another masterpiece in this 1970 adaptation of “King Lear.” As with “Hamlet,” the film is blessed with stunning wide-screen black-and-white cinematography, an inventive musical score by Dmitri Shostakovich and an intelligent translation of Shakespeare’s text by an uncredited Boris Pasternak (who was still persona non grata in the Soviet system, even ten years after his death).

Kozintsev pared down Shakespeare’s magical language in favor of sequences of great visual power: the gathering of poverty-stricken peasants outside of Lear’s castle to witness the monarch’s abdication, the long line of beggars who wander aimlessly across the rocky terrain, and the French horsemen leading their struggling equines up the rocky Dover cliffs (the film was shot along the rugged Baltic coast).

Estonian actor Yuri Yarvet may have seemed frail and decidedly less-than-regal when compared to the other larger-than-life personalities that played Lear on stage and screen, yet his haunting visage betrays the genuine paternal pains of a doting father who is viciously torn apart by his brutal offspring (not including the gorgeous Valentina Shendrikova as Cordelia, who offers the rare slice of genuine love in this vipers’ nest).

Not unlike “Hamlet,” the film is better known by scholarly reputation than popular acclaim (it barely played in American theaters in 1975 and remained virtually unseen since). This long-overdue DVD should help confirm its greatness and reconfirm the brilliance of Kozintsev as the Soviet Union’s last great filmmaker.

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