King Lear

Royal Shakespeare Company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Wednesday, September 26.

I need to study King Lear because whenever I see it, I always wonder whether I’m supposed to despise Lear. Is that just a modern or youthful interpretation, to see the play as a warning not to ungrateful children but ungrateful parents? Goneril and (especially) Regan’s treatment of Gloucester is appalling, but their treatment of their father, at least initially, seems reasonable. They’re perfectly within their rights stripping him of his slovenly, rowdy, expensive attendants, and if they do so with unseemly relish, well, given the disrespect with which he’s treated them, I’m not sure I blame them. As unforgiving and vicious as Goneril and Regan can be, that very hard-heartedness marks them as Lear’s true daughters, at least as I usually read the play.

So I’m grateful that Trevor Nunn’s production and Ian McKellen’s masterful performance in the title role managed to complicate and maybe even soften my feelings toward Lear because that makes the play more interesting. Lear becomes more sympathetic if you can see his bullheadness and inability to empathize as—to some extent—symptoms of creeping dementia. Not that Lear was ever a good father to Goneril and Regan or that his treatment of Cordelia was appropriate, but he might have been able to learn and repent—like Gloucester, the other rotten father—if he hadn’t been losing his grip on his sanity.

Eastern Promises

In theaters.

Eastern Promises is a perfectly good thriller, maybe even a better-than-average thriller, and if I’d gone into it with no expectations of any kind, I might would have enjoyed it more. But with David Cronenberg directing and Viggo Mortensen starring, I was gleefully anticipated A History of Violence 2, with a dash of the mordant humor and social consciousness of screenwriter Steven Knight’s previous effort Dirty Pretty Things, and Eastern Promises simply didn’t live up to those expectations.

Mad Men

Thursdays at 10 p.m. on AMC. Nine episodes into the first season.

Mad Men is like a girl whose beauty distracts people from her intelligence. Or maybe it’s like a girl whose charm and good looks mislead people into thinking she’s smarter than she truly is. I’m not sure, to be honest, but the look of Mad Men is undeniably ravishing, and the analogy amuses me: insidious, condescending sexism is one of the principal threads of the show.

But it’s not the only one. Quietly provocative and sumptuously textured, Mad Men does not lack for ambition. Set in a midlevel New York ad agency during the early 1960s, it delves into sexism, classism, racism, anti-Semitism, and homosexuality without ever feeling like a movie-of-the-week. It’s too luxuriantly filmed for that and occasionally too opaque, presenting a striking tableau without necessarily spelling out what it means.

Across the Universe

In theaters.

I’m not a huge fan of Julie Taymor’s Titus, but I’ll never forget the moment when Titus’s brother discovers his niece, Titus’s daughter Lavinia, outside the city. Raped and brutalized, her tongue and hands savagely cut off, Lavinia stands atop a tree trunk with twigs protruding from the stumps of her arms and tears streaking her ash-white face: a silently weeping scarecrow against a pale blue sky. The image, paradoxically, is hauntingly beautiful—which is sort of a problem. Taymor has created a gorgeous tableau, dazzling in its aesthetic artistry, but the emotional context is muted. The sheer beauty overwhelms the horror.

That kind of visual splendor disguising emotional vacuity is a recurrent problem in Taymor’s work, on both stage and screen, and her latest film, Across the Universe, is no different. Admirably ambitious yet ultimately rather shallow, Universe is pretty but empty. I remember the set pieces vividly; the story I’ve already half forgotten.