Sunday, 13 May 2012

Scene on a Sunday: The Lion in Winter

Katharine Hepburn’s birthday was yesterday, and when I realised that I hadn’t concocted a sufficient tribute to the woman I vetoed my original choice for today’s Scene on a Sunday to focus on one of the finest films of all time, in my estimation, with some of the finest performances of all time – Tony Harvey’s The Lion in Winter. It’s a film which earns much of its success from its excellent script buoyed by fine acting and (sometimes forgotten) excellent direction and production design.

I struggled finding a scene from this to showcase, even though I watched it twice in the last 2 weeks (yes, at the expense of school work and new movies I should be watching.)

Set-Up: It is Christmas. Henry (the eponymous lion) is torn on which of his three sons to leave his Kingdom. Meanwhile Philip, the new young king of France, is there to talk business. Return his sister (in England for over a decade and now Henry’s mistress) or things will go awry. Henry’s Queen Eleanor (out of “jail” for the holidays) is preparing to strike. This scene is early on as we establish the strangeness of this family. King Phillip leaves and …

          Henry: “Well, what shall we hang? The holly or each other?
 And, that’s a line which sets the tone for the scene and the film. I have been moved, on occasion, when persons asked me what my favourite Christmas movie was to say The Lion in Winter; not only to mess with their heads but even though it doesn’t quite delve into Christmas festivities it nails the lethargic bitterness that comes from being with your family in one place over a period of time. That’s the holly. The “[hang] each other” bit is self explanatory. These folks are ruthless.

          Richard: “Would you say, father, that I have the makings of a king?”

          Henry : “A splendid king.”
          Richard: “And, would you expect me, father, to give up without a fight?”
          Henry: “Of course you’ll fight. I raised you to.”
          Richard: “I don’t care what you offer Philip. I don’t care what plans you make. I’ll have the Aquitaine and Alais and the crown. I’ll not give up one to get the other. I won’t trade off Alais or the Aquitaine to that walking pustule!” 

Hopkins earned a BAFTA nomination for this his first role in a feature film, and he does a fine job of telegraphing the regal arrogance of Richard so well. He’s not at the level of Hepburn and O’Toole at the time, but like the two he’s especially at debt at pointed line-readings which work so well for Richard in the film.

Eschewing its sadness, sometimes, for humorous sarcasm The Lion in Winter is generally keen on examining the manner in which parents and children relate to each other, and the worry of Henry unable to truly love this son because his wife favours him so and because he’s worried about his impotence is suggested in such a throwaway dialogue here.

Nigel Terry (22 here) is so good at nailing John’s ingratiating annoying ways.
          Richard: “No, your loving son will not.”

Exit, Richard – the first to go.
          John: “Did you hear what he called me?”

 The shot below reveals there’s another in the room, but I love how this shot makes it seem like it’s just of the four – a perfect indication of the story’s roots.

          Eleanor: Clearly, dear. Now, run along. It’s nearly dinnertime.

John moves and we see Geoffrey, the middle child (of these three) and the eternally forgotten one. We don’t even go straight into Kate for a close-up here, Harvey is still – excellently – setting up the stance of the family against each other now that Prince Philip has left.

          John: “I only do what father tells me.”

          Henry: “Go and eat.”

          John: “Did I say something wrong? I’m always saying something wrong.”
          Henry: “And don’t pout.”
          John: “I’m not pouting!”

(Alais – Jane Merrow – amuses me in the shot above. She seems completely from the scenario at hand, not even facing the lot. And, once again, Geoffrey is made invisible.)

          Henry: “And, stand up straight! How often do I have to tell you?”
(This one’s a nicer shot – Geoffrey’s obscured, Alais – the actual ornament – putting an ornament on the tree, John sulking, Geoffrey lambasting and Eleanor observing)

Exit John, the second to go.
          Eleanor : “And that’s to be the king…?

          Geoffrey: “… and I’m to be his chancellor. Has he told you?  
Lovely shots of Castle and Hepburn, and then O’Toole glowering from across the room.

          Geoffrey: “John will rule the country while I run it, that is to say, he gets to spend the taxes I raise.”

As much as I like Hopkins here, if pushed I’d probably single out John Castle’s Geoffrey as my favourite supporting player of the film. Geoffrey (and Castle’s interpretation of him) is the finest indication of the marriage of his parents – he’s the most wily, and Castle (especially for an actor who, unfortunately, found massive love) is the subtlest performer of the quartet of younger men in the film.

          Eleanor: “How nice for you.”

          Geoffrey: “It’s not as nice as being king.”

          Henry: “We’ve made you Duke of Brittany. Is that so little?”

          Geoffrey: “No one ever thinks of crown and mentions Geoff. Why is that?

Henry (OS): “Isn’t being chancellor power enough?”
          Geoffrey: “It’s not the power I feel deprived of. It’s the mention I miss. There’s no affection for me here. You wouldn’t think I’d want that, would you?”
And, just like his mother, he delivers lines that should make him seem vulnerable but telegraphs them with a cold sangfroid that’s just excellent to watch.

Eleanor observes.
(One of my favourite shots of Kate in the scene. And, I haven’t even spoken of those excellent costumes – the red dress is a beauty, and a nice touch. It’s one of the few instances of searing colour in terms of apparel, and of course it’s worn by the Queen.)

Exit Geoffrey, the third to go.
          Eleanor OS: “Henry?”
 And that’s one of my favourite shots of Henry.

          Henry: “Hmmm.”
 That one too. O’Toole is so good at being gruff. Forget the fact that he’s playing a man fifteen years his senior (and so well) he relishes the crotchety disposition of the King, which makes the rapport between he and Kate that much more delightful to watch.

          Eleanor OS: “I have a confession”

          Eleanor: “I don't much like our children.”
 These are not the ideal parents – an understatement, of course they probably do not have the idea children.

          Eleanor: “Only you... the child I raised but didn't bear.”
 That’s another nice ensemble shot.

          Alais: “You never cared for me.”
And, we turn to Jane Merrow the one big question of the film. This is one of my favourite films and, ultimately, she works for me. But, I watch the film and I always wonder am I being annoyed by Alais or by Jane’s performance. I find her Golden Globe nomination a bit suspect.

          Eleanor: “I did and do, believe me. Henry's bed is Henry's province. He can people it with sheep for all I care, which, on occasion, he has done.”
This scene is not about the caustic barbs as much as later ones, but this is an indication of easily vicious Eleanor can be whilst managing to make it looks impossibly classy.

          Henry: “Rosamund’s been dead for seven years.”

          Eleanor: “Two months and eighteen days. I never liked her much.”
The eternally bad thing about my scene analyses is that you can’t *hear* the inflections of the performers. Kate’s tone there just kills me.

          Henry: “You count the days?”
          Eleanor: “I made the numbers up.”
The first dozen times I saw this I always wondered was it I made the numbers up (as in she just recited random numbers) or is it she had Rosamund killed? I realised later on it was the second, but it’s all in Kate’s tone.

          Eleanor: “He found Miss Clifford in the mists of Wales... and brought her home for closer observation. Liking what he found, he scrutinised her many years. He loved her deeply, and she, him. And yet, my dear, when Henry had to choose between his lady and my lands...”
I love how the camera moves with her so that it’s almost in her face as she speaks to Alais. It’s not match really, but I think it’s not supposed to be. Eleanor is easily the Queen.

          Alais: “There is no sport in hurting me. It's so easy.”
 (It’s easy, but there is sport.)

          Eleanor: “After all the years of loving care, do you think I could bring myself to hurt you?”
          Eleanor: “Eleanor, with both hands tied behind you.”
I have to give credit to Merrow, there. It’s her finest line-reading.

And Alais departs, leaving us with two.
          Henry (OS): “She is lovely, isn’t she?”
          Eleanor: “Yes, very.”
 Kate’s line readings are marvellous, yes. But, this is not new information – her voice has always been a shining beacon where her talent is regarded. What tips this performance over into greatness is the way Kate has Eleanor not just thinking about the next witty thing to say, but listening to the lines going on around her. Her expressions are devastating.

          Henry: “Who could I have chosen to love... to gall you more?”
          Eleanor: “There’s no one.”
          Henry: “Time hasn’t done a thing but wrinkle you.”
          Eleanor: “It hasn’t even done that. I've borne six girls, five boys... and thirty one connubial years of you. How am I possible?”
Another reason this performance works is because Eleanor with all her tenacity is such a fine paradigm for Kate as a woman. At the time she’d earned 2 Oscars, 10 nominations, a Best Actress prize from Cannes and 36 years of cinema and 34 films. How was she possible?

          Henry: “There are moments when I miss you.”
          Eleanor: “Many? That’s my wooly sheepdog.”
They do make a beautiful couple.

           Eleanor: “So, wee Johnny gets the crown.”
            Henry: “I've heard it rumoured, but I don't believe it.”                
          Alais: “Losing Alais will be hard, for you do love her.”
          Henry: “It’s an old man’s last attachment, nothing more.”
          Henry: “How hard do you find living in your castle?”           

          Eleanor: “It was difficult in the beginning, but that’s past. I find I’ve seen the world enough.”
 Kate makes such interesting choices as a performer. Tilting her head that way, leaning in a specific line, a wan laugh there. It’s such a specific read on the character, Eleanor comes across so much more exact on the page whereas Kate telegraphs such an organic nature in the character.

          Henry: “I’ll never let you loose. You led too many civil wars against me.”
And, how wise is Tony Harvey for not opting for single shot close-ups here? The camera is on both so we watch them perform *together*, not against each other. It’s one of the best things about Kate – from Cary to Jimmy to Spencer to Humphrey to Peter to Laurence to Henry she brings out excellent things in her leading men.

          Eleanor: “And I damn near won the last one. Still, as long as I get trotted out... for Christmas courts and state occasions now and then... for I do like to see’s enough.”
Aaah, but is she sincere? It’s such an eternal conundrum with Eleanor – one never really knows with her.

          Eleanor: “I’m famished. Let's go in to dinner.”
          Henry: “Arm in arm.”
          Eleanor: “And hand in hand.” 
          Eleanor: “You’re still a marvel of a man.”

          Henry: “And you're my lady.”
But, when it closes on such a beautiful note it’s difficult to think about all the barbs to be fired. They are so lovely together.

Hardly the most excitable scene in The Lion in Winter, but it’s nonetheless a great one. The entire cast ranges from good to outstanding, and Peter and Kate excel opposite each other.

Do you love the film as much as I? Kate’s performance here is ______________. The best thing about this scene is ______________?


CrazyCris said...

When I think about it I'm still kind of shocked I have NEVER seen this film!!! Especially considering how much I love Kate and Eleanor of Aquitaine is my favourite historical figure! :p

Great choice for a scene!

Eleanor: “I don't much like our children.” LOL!!! Reap and thee shall sow... their children were definitely dangerous! :o)

Off topic: have you seen the Avengers yet? I put up a review a week ago... had a blast! Only regret: dubbed version *groan*

Runs Like A Gay said...

Oh yes, I definitely love this film as much as you. Fantastic piece of barbed writing.

Something I hadn't noticed about this scene until you broke it down is how Geoffrey literally has to walk into the frame to get his close up.

Both Richard and John are close up when they start talking but Geoff's way back sneaking in the shadows, eternally forgotten he has to cross the room to get his moment and even then Eleanor is lurking behind him, gently pulling yet more strings.

Terrific staging in this scene - I'll have to go watch it again to check if that's consistent throughout the film.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

cris saw the avengers. unfortunately, did not love :( and you MUST see this film, it's amazing.

ben ugh, poor geoffrey. i keep wondering if it's just by chance that he's so obscured in much of the shots. harvey being so meticulous elsewhere in the film, i figure it's strategic. such a great film, one remembers the important things like kate, the dialogue but rewatches reveal such intricacies. LOVE.

Margaret Perry said...

This is a truly marvelous picture! I always forget how much I like it because it's a little too texty to watch with a party of people. But I LOVE the wit and delivery of the lines. What you've said here about KH's voice and her style of acting are totally spot-on. As in many of her other films (notably Little Women (1934)) she is impecably cast - Hepburn IS Eleanor of Aquitaine. I know she read all the history books she could get her hands on for this part. And she had a great time with O'Toole. I really like your close reading of the scenes. One of my favorite exchanges in this film is the scene just following, when they both walk in to dinner. Talking about barbs! Yet done with such finess, the viewer is really intrigued about how much harm these two would desire or would be able to inflict upon each other. Is it love or... not? Great reading of the film, thank you!