I love watching film adaptations of Shakespeare plays; even if they’re bad, they’re almost always entertaining. Most of the notable Lear films — Peter Brooks’ groundbreaking version in 1962, James Earl Jones in 1974, Laurence Olivier in 1983, Ian McKellen in 2008 — are readily available online. It took a bit of hunting to find this little gem, though.
Gerolamo Lo Savio’s 1910 silent film version of Lear, called Re Lear, is only 16 minutes long. and it’s worth every second. Like most silent films, the acting is delightfully melodramatic, the costumes are extravagant and historically inaccurate, and the set looks like it’s held together by a few pieces of scotch tape. Despite the design flaws and brevity, though, it’s Lear through and through. The actors play their characters totally traditionally: Cordelia is beautiful and eternally innocent, her sisters are ugly and cruel (I’m 90 percent positive Goneril is played by a man), the Fool spends most of the 16 minutes rolling around on the ground laughing. It keeps most of the essential scenes — the banishment, Kent in the stocks, Lear going mad (this Lear has probably the best crazy eyes I’ve ever seen) — and despite the overacting during the sad and angry moments, there are some tender, gentle scenes as well.
Complete with its original hand-tinted color, this short film is a must-see. If anything, it’s a reminder of how even more than 100 years ago, Lear was a relevant and entertaining story. It’s also worth noting how artistic choices in the last century have altered the how actors, directors and designers tell the story, and how, if at all, the meaning has changed.