“What is truth in art? What is truth in cinema? If by truth you look for accuracy and period detail then The Lion in Winter will not be for you. If, on the other hand, you look for that deeper truth of the Human Condition then few films get closer to identifying it. Writer James Goldman takes a warring family with 20th century feelings and responses and places it firmly into the context 12th century royal politics. It’s an extraordinary achievement aided by a superb cast (Hepburn, O’Toole, Hopkins all at the top of their game), convincingly low key design and a terrific quasi-monastic score.”
Ben, of the irreverently named Runs Like A Gay wrote the above. He’s actually been lucky enough to take part in a production of the excellent play and I couldn’t agree more with his summation. As far as history dramas go The Lion in Winter may be little more than farce, but if it’s farce – it’s irresistible farce.
“What a desolation!”
Were one to line up the reasons – rationally as possible – as to the pros and cons of Anthony Harvey’s 1968 drama, the sound question one would be moved to ask is how the film managed to be a success. The fact is, The Lion in Winter has more going against it that for it. First off, it’s a historical drama. It’s nowhere near as expansive (thematically) as A Man For All Seasons and this Henry isn’t the one that most history buffs are interested in. Secondly, in the mere few days the film covers nothing particularly pertinent happens. In fact, were we moved to ask what any particular character has accomplished during the film’s runtime we may end up answering – nothing. And conversely, while the action is sparse the film is very “talk-y”, not exactly a prerequisite for a good (or enjoyable) film about the 12th century. Yet, The Lion in Winter defies these odds. The original stage production wasn’t much to shout about (or so I heard), but perhaps it’s the inclusion of our Lady Kate, Peter O’Toole and a newly discovered Anthony Hopkins that makes it such a success. Perhaps, the story was just more suited for the film. I don’t know. Whatever it is, I always marvel at it.
It’s some time during the 12th century and Henry is on the throne. His wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, is imprisoned in Salisbury Tower. Henry has three sons (on screen; historically there were more) and he’s uncertain whom should be his successor. There’s the lion hearted Richard, the duplicitous but sage Geoffrey and the petulant John. It’s Christmas, though, and thus the family reunites for a few days. Unfortunately, festivity is low as Prince Philip is coming to Chignon to demand that this sister be married to the heir of the throne (whomever that may be) or returned to France. Princess Alais has been in England for some time, now acting as a concubine to the King – but a marriage, to anyone, seems dubious. Thus lies the state of affairs as The Lion in Winter opens. It would be a thorny task to say what happens within the next 120 minutes, and I don’t think I’d care to explain either. Lies will be told, games will be played, knives will be drawn (as will curtains, too), persons will be duped and of course it ends with goodbyes (yet, curiously, no tears). From the inception, the atmosphere of it all is striking. Look at the earlier incarnation of Henry’s life (the 1964 Becket). This set is not the same. Unlike its predecessors the courts of this incarnation are not spotless, but soiled and unkempt – like we’d expect from the period. The Queen’s robes are majestic, but not unblemished and unlike the 1964 piece the court is pervaded by the presence of animals – domestic and otherwise. It’s not the typical period piece, and it shows.
Tom of the eclectic Reinvention: The Journal of a Dog Lover, Book Reader, Movie Goer and Writer shares his thoughts on the film.
“At the heart of this deliciously medieval drama is Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine, imprisoned queen of tempestuous Henry II (the roaring Peter O'Toole). This is the consummate portrayal by one of cinema's most brilliant actresses. Hepburn demonstrates a stunning ability to speak volumes with a word, a look, a tremble of emotion. In a single scene, sometimes with a single line of dialog, she goes from beautiful and vulnerable to ironic and witty to cunning and calculating.
Director Anthony Harvey and Screenwriter James Goldman provide Hepburn with the right environment and the beautiful language for Hepburn to play at her most wonderful. The Lion in Winter is at once a mystical and haunting historical epic, domestic comedy/drama, and pageant. Harvey lights his sets and moves his camera and creates a picture unique even among historical epics. Goldman's playful script switches moods and allegiances on a dime, and often winks at us with the comparisons between this royal family and modern soap opera. (Favorite line: Oh well, what family doesn't have its ups and downs?) This film is rich in dialog and intrigue, and is worth a fortnight of viewings.
One need not be familiar with the historical origins of this story. Details are deftly filled in, so that we may enjoy the battles between king and queen and their three power-hungry sons, as well as the rich detail of the design, and the soaring and beautiful musical score.”
In the same way that the 1968 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is a tug-of-war where one cannot choose between Burton’s quiet sadism or Liz’s loud fury one should not choose between Hepburn and O’Toole (although, naturally, I do). The two are evenly matched in this battle, in words and in talent and it’s no surprise that The Lion in Winter reaches its peak in these moment. Yet, what makes The Lion in Winter stand apart of any other film with two leads is that it’s backed up by an excellent excellent cast, each intent on having his day in the sun (or at least destroying a family member). The first words on screen? …come for me. It’s too easy for me to consider it incidental, for The Lion in Winter is really all about everyone intent on outmanoeuvring their peers. I’ll get it out of the way now, Jane Merrow’s Alais presents the film’s only clunker, the less said about her – the better. It’s more than her obvious inadequacy when measured against our Lady Kate but her foppishness makes the film just a little sluggish when she takes centre stage. But she’s surrounded by masters (or at least novices doing a good job of pretending – and isn’t that the same?), so it doesn’t hurt us much. I continue to marvel at the wondrous thing that was John Castle’s performance at the middle – Geoffrey. I still remain confused as to why this performance is so forgotten, and even more flummoxed as to Castle’s inability to make a large mark on film hereafter. Nigel Terry and a young Anthony Hopkins round out the trinity, with Hopkins being particularly moving opposite his Ms. Hepburn. His steely elegance reminds me of Russell Crow circa Gladiator.
Yojimbo, of Let’s Not Talk About Movies opines:
“This is red meat material, chewy and sinewy and full of juice and played by a cast of gourmands who relish the consuming—even Katherine Hepburn, who knew the value of stillness, knew when to tuck in and tear away at a juicy part. The cast, including a debuting Timothy Dalton whose entrance always evokes a smile (with his first ebullient shot not only does he show he deserves to play a King, but also play against Peter O’Toole!) makes the most of rich, if maybe a shade too contemporary, material by James Goldman-his personal best. That the film is so rich is due to the delicious script, and actors, as the other films of director Anthony Harvey are relatively bloodless. It’s an event film, with both Peter O’Toole and Hepburn at the top of their roaring games, and Anthony Hopkins, young bull that he was, giving a glimpse of the glowering powers he would bring to the screen.”
Like him, I too appreciate the script as one of the film’s highlight. If I had to single out a script as the best of all time – I’d single out The Lion in Winter in a heartbeat. The lines roll off the tongue like syrup, anachronistic at times but striking nonetheless. As we continue on the journey through the top ten we reach films where the faults are less and less, and ultimately I forgive Jane Merrow’s poor showing in the film because she sells her final pieces with O’Toole so sincerely I wonder if it took time for her to find her talent (or perhaps convection of talent from O’Toole and Hepburn),. But then, when I remember I return to the man and his wife. O’Toole and Hepburn give my two favourite performances of the decade and the film is a masterpiece. When it ends he turns to his queen and says “I hope we never die.” She answers without sentiment, “So do I.” With these performances I warrant that they won’t. It falls at #6 on my list of favourites.
What are your thoughts on Kate and Peter here? Are you a fan of the script? ...of the movie?