While a Russian version of Shakespeare classics may sound like a cultural anomaly, these two discs are well-worth investigating.
Since their originally releases in 1964 and 1971, they have rightly gathered a reputation for being among the very best filmed accounts of these works.
Because both stories are set in very old times, their monochrome look actually helps, rather than hinders the realism. The windswept locations speak hundreds of words, particularly the bleak, wild and deluged Steppes that play host to King Lear in the middle of his madness (although they do not look much like Cornwall!).
Lear himself (Jüri Järvet) has a strange other-worldliness that conveys a man on the edge of his reason, but still with all his passion intact. As it is subtitled, you may need to hold the pause button for the full effect of the text of this powerful and emotionally engaging film.
Kozintsev’s penultimate work, Hamlet is brilliantly paced (both of these come in at 140 minutes), moving fast enough for those unused to the Bard, but including all the essence of the play, and more.
This visual treat is exquisite in its cinematography, featuring excellent framing, composition and use of light. Clearly influenced by the storytelling of silent movies, he dramatically conveys much of the play’s setting before a word has been spoken.
The somewhat stylistic approach to several of Olivia’s scenes can be distracting, but Laurence Olivier, the director and star of the Oscar-winning 1948 production, considered Innokenty Smoktunevsky’s work here as the definitive screen performance of the lead role.