Anthony Harvey’s period drama, The Lion in Winter, is, in a word, all about the ACTING. Yes, that’s acting in all caps. For a reason. Led by the formidable Peter O’Toole, this film boasts an impressive line-up, with Katharine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins, and Timothy Dalton ably backing up Mr. O’Toole. Nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Actor and Actress for O’Toole and Hepburn (she won), this film is now perhaps a little dated, but still extremely impressive if one is at all interested in seeing great performances.
Based on a play by James Goldman (who also adapted it to the screen), The Lion in Winter tells the (largely fictitious) story of King Henry II’s 1183 Christmas Court, held at Chinon. In attendance are Henry’s three remaining sons: Richard (Hopkins), Geoffrey, and John (John Castle and Nigel Terry, both excellent), along with his estranged wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Hepburn), his lovely young mistress, Alais (Jane Merrow), and her half-brother, King Philip of France (Dalton, revelatory). The gist of the plot is that Henry is old, and should be naming a successor while making sure he stays in the political good graces of France. What ensues is a sometimes-baffling array of double- and triple-crossing by Henry, Eleanor, their sons, and King Philip. John is Henry’s favorite, but, as the youngest, he should not be considered for the crown (and indeed, would be a poor choice). Richard is Eleanor’s favorite in addition to being strong, savvy, and warlike, while Geoffrey is oft-forgotten, but easily the most clever of the three. He spends his time aligning himself with whoever appears most likely to win at any given point in time. Meanwhile, it has been determined that Alais is relegated to the role of mere pawn, and will be forced to marry whoever succeeds to the throne. Everyone, it seems, has their own agenda, and no-one is above offering anything, or harming anyone, in order to be on the winning side. The film views like a roller coaster of ups and downs, highs and lows, and in the end, nothing is even decided.
I find plays that have been adapted into films fascinating in that they either work brilliantly, or don’t work at all. This one works quite well, but is clear in its origins, being almost entirely driven by dialogue, requiring very few set pieces or costume changes, and with a few scenes thrown in where action most likely took place off-screen on stage. The dialogue is blistering and makes it very hard to adjust the sound accordingly – everyone is either shouting or whispering. And what shouting/whispering!
As previously mentioned, this film is all about the performances. Hepburn is absolutely riveting as the aging queen, fighting a losing battle with time (although Eleanor would go on to survive not only Henry, but Richard as well) and recognizing that she must rely more and more on her cunning, as those weapons usually given to a woman (beauty, sex appeal, etc.) are no longer hers to control. Hopkins, in an early role, plays Richard with stolid assurance. He knows he’s the best choice to take on the crown, and is secure in his abilities as a military leader to back up his claims if need be. Timothy Dalton, also in an extremely early role, nearly steals the show as the oily King Philip. There’s one memorable scene where Philip essentially shifts from side to side to side, all in the blink of an eye, and with each of the allies he’s lately joined and then abandoned hidden somewhere in the room, listening on. Really tremendous. However, the film belongs, from beginning to end, to Peter O’Toole. As the aging King Henry, he shifts effortlessly from towering presence to decaying man. He knows his days are numbered, but he also knows that he is in almost complete control, and that none of these people will dare cross him in the ultimate manner. I actually spent a fair amount of time thinking, “Wow, why do none of these people just assassinate him?” but when it finally comes to that, the panic and fear written on the faces of those with just such an opportunity tells you everything you need to know. This man is the KING, and he is to be feared, even when outnumbered and without hope. I’m looking forward to seeing O’Toole play Henry again in Becket alongside Richard Burton. It’ll be interesting to compare the characterizations.
All in all, I really enjoyed this movie. I am partial to character-driven stories with good acting, and The Lion in Winter is nothing if not character-driven, with past, present, and future A-list actors, all at the top of their game. It’s a definite recommend to anyone who wants to see a good show, fans of good acting, or fans of any of the leads.