- Directed by: Anthony Harvey.
- Written by: James Goldman. Based on The Lion in Winter by James Goldman.
- Starring: Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins, John Castle, Nigel Terry, Timothy Dalton, Jane Merrow.
- Rated: PG.
The Lion in Winter is more of a talkie than a movie. James Goldman adapted the screenplay from his own play, a successful 1966 Broadway production. It is quite apparent in director Anthony Harvey’s shooting. Harvey would make an excellent stage director, as he produces satisfactory and often transcendent performances, but he’s a mediocre film director. Despite the sheer scale of the film’s settings, Harvey’s film is exemplary of many ’60s movies that are photographed with muted palettes rendering the screen dull but not dark. There is a fair share of interesting shots, but this is a film that places sound above sight.
Goldman’s script is a doozy, to say the least. Seven royal figures have converged upon the castle of Chinon to debate the heir to the throne of England, and they hurl savage wit at each other by way of greetings. Deceit and ulterior motives are not expected for inclusion in the games, they’re required. The Lion in Winter is labyrinthine, a tangled web in which we follow a character’s expectations through to his tactics, only to realize that the tables have turned in the time it took us to wash up for the first course. Radical shifts in tone are delivered with effortless rapid fire. We are enthralled as we see verbal sparring matches leading to physical altercations followed by breakdowns and revelations. Inevitably each character admits defeat until they are given a meager gift to work with and strengthen their resolve. This is a mean, vicious cycle for a mean, vicious movie.
The film depends not on plot but a healthy dose of circumstance and several tons of character. Goldman and Harvey have created a situation with a good deal of dramatic stakes. They have set their cage up neatly, plopped their characters in the middle of it, and watched as they turn on each other. There are no artificial plot twists, unless you count game-changing admissions, nor does it feature a climax, unless you count a duel that is meant to be pathetic. The characters are rich enough and their motivations twisty enough to fuel two and a quarter hours of medieval intrigue. It is engaging and entertaining from start to finish and filled with marvels big and small.
King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) has summoned his family from the far reaches of Europe for a Christmas court, where they are to make a treaty with France and dole out three coveted assets: the land, the girl, and, of course, the crown. In attendance are sons Richard (Anthony Hopkins), a fierce military general who seeks all three objects of desire; Geoffrey (John Castle), the overlooked middle child who proves a dangerously cunning snake; Johnny (Nigel Terry), the uncouth youngest son who hasn’t a brain in his head but has daddy’s affection. Also among the guests are the newly minted King Phillip II (Timothy Dalton), who refuses to allow France to waver in the face of England’s might; Henry’s mistress Alais (Jane Merrow), who’s Phillip’s sister and is the distraught ‘girl’ up for grabs - and Queen Eleanor of Aquitane (Katharine Hepburn), who has been released from her de facto imprisonment for the occasion and may be the only one who can truly hold her own against the King.
These are seven phenomenal performers acting at the top of their craft. Peter O’Toole brings an engaging duality to Henry, moving from fierce displays of force to bemused jests with ease. After shouting at the King of France, Dalton answers him quietly and calmly. O’Toole relaxes and tells him he’s not very good at royal negotiations: “when I bellow, bellow back!” His part is one any actor would grab in an instant. “There’s a legend of a King called Lear, with whom I have a lot in common. Both of us have three kingdoms and three children we adore, and both of us are old, but there it ends,” Henry says. How wrong he is. Through the course of the movie, we see that he, too, is disappointed by his children, and falls into anger and madness and says things he regrets as well. Never mind, of course, that the film takes place in 1183 and that Shakespeare didn’t start writing Lear until 1603.
And what of Hepburn? If O’Toole has two faces, she must have at least five. Hepburn the victim, Hepburn the bully, Hepburn the general, Hepburn the confidante, Hepburn the matriarch. This is a grand, majestic flourish of a performance. We realize we’re not just watching a great actor, but a movie star, and one that deserves that title. These two actors repartee make the film tick. They make for vicious lovers and adoring haters. “What shall we hang first, the holly or each other?” says the King by way of greeting, but they spend plenty of time affectionately reminiscing together. I don’t know if I’ll ever forget the strange and beautiful moment near the end when the two are huddled together in the dungeon looking for jungle animals in the dark.
It is a small crime that Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton were not nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Both play characters who Henry scrutinizes and evaluates as tough and weak, respectively. In the course of a single scene, their attributes have been switched. John Castle is just as good as forgotten middle child Geoffrey, who uses his intellect and cunning to compensate for sheer weakness. He is the first to begin plotting for the crown, but is revealed a coward in the finale. Nigel Terry plays youngest son Johnny, a character that is great for comic relief and whose blundering nature leads him to misery. Poor Jane Merrow is the weakest-willed character; she spends most of the film begging more important decision makers not to decide her fate and always seems to be the last to know everything.
The Lion in Winter is a film about affection. In the end, the girl, the land, and the crown are unimportant. The characters frequently ask each other if they are loved. This is what they are fighting for. Alais and Eleanor crave Henry’s affections and the children crave their parents’. The most remarkable thing about this film is that none of them get the girl, the land, or the crown. But some of them do get affection, in some shape or another. That is enough for them. That is enough. ☆☆☆☆