Shakespeare's King Lear play begins and ends amid unanswered questions: why did Lear decide to split up his kingdom? Why is Cordelia so curt and stubborn? What happened to the Queen? And what becomes of Gloucester and the Fool? In this self-aware version of the story (one of the characters openly remarks on the resemblance to Lear) the old man splits his wealth among his children because he is going away to end his days in the Holy Land, and his wife is there to warn him that he is not thinking things through but women in general are not much listened to. The youngest daughter angers her father because she rejects materialism, rejects an arranged marriage, and wants to study and contribute to society just like a man, but she is the noble exception; her sisters are unschooled and delight in jewelry that draws envious looks from their peers at the synagogue. With motivations thus established better than Shakespeare bothered to establish them, the movie rushes through a course that parallels King Lear in abbreviated form: no Kent, Oswald, Gloucester, Edmund, or Edgar, though the Lear character incorporates a bit of Gloucester's role. The chief villain is a son-in-law; the older sisters are not as actively evil as in Shakespeare because they belong to an old order in which women counted for little. Up against the patriarch in this movie, even the Fool does not have the backbone that he has in the Shakespeare version. But the character paralleling the King of France, who marries the good daughter and ultimately cares for the old man when no one else will, is a representative of the new order-- a clean-shaven intellectual with learning that extends beyond religious studies. (He's the one who knows his Shakespeare.) Evidently the audience is to understand that the enlightened new Russia will overcome the social distortions of the past generations.
The scenery, make-up, and acting seem to be straight from the Yiddish stage, for better or worse. The subtitles occasionally blunder (surely the wife's name is "Hannah Leah," not "Hannah Lear"), but they deal with length in an interesting way: instead of chopping a long remark into two in order to fit it onto the bottom of the screen, they scroll the lines at the bottom of the screen like credits. At first it's distracting, but it does give the audience more time to read the text.
As a play, "The Jewish King Lear" had been a great success. The film actors present it with respect and confidence, though in a style that must necessarily strike us as antique.
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