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My Kingdom
cast: Richard Harris, Lynn Redgrave, Emma Catherwood, Jimi Mistry, and Louise Lombard

director: Don Boyd

112 minutes (18) 2001 High Fliers VHS rental Also available to rent on DVD
[released 17 February]

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
An ambitious attempt to update and rework Shakespeare's King Lear in a Merseyside setting, My Kingdom is ultimately most notable for being one of the final films of Richard Harris, who died of Hodgkin's disease the following year. Harris, as one might expect, plays the tragic patriarch, who unwisely questions the worth of his best daughter Jo (Emma Catherwood) then divides his kingdom - in this case the proceeds of life in crime - amongst two others Kath (Louise Lombard) and Tracy (Lorraine Pilkington). Soon ingratitude rears its ugly head and he has to reconcile himself to his lost pride and with the wronged woman. This isn't the first time that the Bard has had his works adapted into a gangster setting. Back in 1955, Ken Hughes did a creditable job with Joe Macbeth, while Bob Hoskin's Harold in The Long Good Friday (1980) seems a hero reminiscent of classic tragedy, wherein greatness is destroyed by flaw and circumstance. Attempts by directors to rework what is perhaps Shakespeare's greatest play specifically have ranged from the successful (Ran, 1985) to the disastrous (Godard's 1987 film). This version by Don Boyd, who 20 years ago produced Derek Jarman's very gay, fairly straightforward version of The Tempest is, to be frank, nothing special.
   Made by Sky films, My Kingdom suffers from some of the visual inadequacies common to television production. Compositions can be flat and there are occasionally irritating facial close ups, which loom too large, characteristic of a medium where deep focus is discouraged. There are some attempts at opening up matters, notably the final scenes by the river with Sandeman and his grandson (who approximates the part of Shakespeare's Fool) or, to a lesser extent, the memorial service for Sandeman's dead wife. More interesting are the efforts of the filmmakers to suggest the dramatic antecedents of the film. Little original dialogue is retained, although an apt quote heads up events. Instead the stage is set as we see Sandeman with his three daughters in their house, interiors peculiarly suggestive of a castle, wearing rich gowns, even mock crowns (party clothes) all of which brings suitably regal overtones.
   Some of the most famous scenes of the original are managed fairly creatively; for instance Lear's 'blasted heath' is here transformed into riverside wasteland or, while the storm rages outside, he finds shelter a fast food restaurant. Much less successful is the end of the two bad daughters (seen as an unconvincing, and too abruptly staged, fatal altercation in their father's house) or, more seriously, the decision by director/adapter Boyd to end the film on what is a note of living reconciliation. Perhaps he may be unaware that a notorious rewrite of Shakespeare's masterpiece by a following generation toned down the original ending in similar fashion. That version, long derided by scholars as a travesty of Shakespeare's original scheme is unfortunately echoed here. Boyd's ending makes of Lear a far less tragic figure than he ought to be, substituting aimlessness for bleakness.
   Harris the actor projects a magisterial presence, which makes of Sandeman a convincing character, neatly sidestepping the risk of bathetic self-pity. It helps of course that his role - albeit on a larger scale - as the Emperor Marcus Aurelius in Scott's successful Gladiator (2000) is still fresh in the viewer's mind. Harris' classic stage training promotes dramatic gravitas, essential to the role just as it did there - even if occasionally one feels that his dangerously soft enunciation could be stronger. This isn't the first time that British cinema has portrayed the North of the country in the light of strong, criminous men (one thinks immediately of Hodges' 1974 classic Get Carter, and its influence, The Reckoning, 1969). Like My Kingdom, both films centre on a strong man confronting disruption in the personal and private spheres, brought about through an abrupt death.
   Sandeman may have passed his prime as villain, but Harris effortless conveys the violence lurking in the old man still, a cruelty and self-centeredness that undoubtedly brought him to the pinnacle of the Merseyside underworld. This is emphasised by the obligatory turn out at his wife's funeral of his awed contemporaries, and the polite reception given to Tracy's embarrassingly naff vocal tribute to her late mother. Like Lear, Sandeman locates a sense of order in his strength and self-pride. Then, by disastrously overplaying his hand, he invites personal catastrophe. "This isn't about happy families. It's about business," he says at one point. But the dysfunctional family he has created is exactly what causes his downfall, rather than the external plot he sees shown in the fatal mugging. Tracy sums it up, when the old power has slipped. Her father "never gave us love. After this, it's our turn to give. And you know what? There's nothing to give." The result is a world, bereft of feeling and emotional commitment, one turned upside down, one where "Muggers, thieves and chaos - it all comes back to you."
   Less effectively played out than this are the conflated subplots, one involving the police, notably Quick (Tom Bell) who, despite having cancer, has found the drive to go on living from his urge to bring Sandeman to book. His brutal treatment, while keeping in line with one of the crucial scenes of the original play, simply seems gratuitous. Another policeman, Puttnam (Aidan Gillen) vacillates between using a videotape to bring Sandeman to book, and sleeping with one of the daughters. The most absurd strand of all involves the importation of drug-stuffed cows, and a final double cross. With this, Boyd seems to have given up on a coherent reworking of the original altogether. Much of this later activity is unfortunately at the expense of dialogue and scenes where Sandeman could have expounded his sense of loss and madness when stripped of dignity and power.
   In summary, then, My Kingdom is an intriguing disappointment. Fans of Harris will want to see their man in one of his last memorable appearances; others will relish the use of effective locations. Given the richness of the original source however, this is neither close enough of an adaptation to be enlightening, nor effective enough to make more than a single viewing necessary.
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