The Lion In Winter Review

The Lion In Winter is the kind of film which is considered distinguished by people who would much rather be watching a stage play. It's respectable, tasteful, well acted and almost completely devoid of any extraneous cinematic excitement. The performances make it slightly better than mediocre but it ends up as little more than a photographed piece of theatre.

Set during the winter of 1183, the film deals with the troubled relationship between Henry II (O'Toole) and his wife Eleanor Of Aquitaine (Hepburn) which was made worse by their quarrels about which of their three sons should succeed to the throne on Henry's death. Henry has his heart set on the youngest, John (Terry) - clumsy, tactless and, frankly, a bit thick - while Eleanor prefers the eldest, Richard (Hopkins) - best described as a yobbish military type. Neither of them is particularly keen on the middle son, Geoffrey (Castle), who is well aware of the lack of parental affection. They spend the whole of Christmas Eve fighting, bitching, scheming and generally behaving in a manner which will be familiar to anyone who has been forced to spend Christmas with their nearest and dearest.

There was quite a trend a few decades ago for films based around famous people from the past but featuring contemporary attitudes and dialogue. Several of these were based on stage plays - this one by James Goldman, A Man For All Seasons, Anne Of The Thousand Days, The Royal Hunt of the Sun - and most of them, stripped of the immediacy of live performance, were incredibly tedious to sit through. But generally they are boringly respectful adaptations of plays which were called classics by overeager critics at the time and now look second rate at best. The problem is that all of them reduce huge, complex historical processes into a series of personal confrontations and simple moral or political dialectics. This does, naturally, make history accessible but only by turning it into soap opera. The lack of complexity in these movies is what makes them so hard to take seriously and the bland, TV movie style direction doesn't help at all. The best of them is A Man For All Seasons because Zinnerman is a decent director and he has a good cast, but even that movie only really comes alive when a high energy performer - notably Orson Welles in the opening scenes - dominates the screen. Anthony Harvey, director of The Lion In Winter, is competent enough but he has two main tricks that he repeats ad nauseum; firstly, beginning with a long shot and slowly zooming in to focus on either a character or a building; and secondly, bringing his cast so close to the camera that you can almost count their nasal hairs. Presumably, the preponderance of close-ups is meant to make us feel part of the action but it just feels unimaginative. It's also unpleasant to have a roaring Peter O'Toole foisted upon you at every opportunity and it makes him look like a bad ham actor. Admittedly, at some points during his career he has been a bad ham actor but his good work here deserves better service from the director.

In fact, it's the performances of Peter O'Toole and Katherine Hepburn that make this film watchable and that's saying a lot. O'Toole has often been a wonderfully vital screen actor and he is rarely boring except when he tries to underplay - as in King Ralph - and becomes a hole in the screen. Thankfully, as Henry II he isn't remotely subtle and he attacks the second-rate would-be witty dialogue with relish. His Henry is a middle aged man made old by the fact that everyone he knows or cares about has either died or betrayed him and he is desperately clinging on to the succession so that even after his death he can have some kind of influence. There's a lovely moment when he says, "I'm the oldest man I know. I've even got ten years on the Pope" and his bearing and voice make you believe that this actor, in his mid-thirties at the time, really is in the twilight of his life. Given a better script, he could also have been very moving but James Goldman's minimal talent is for glib sarcasm and not for grand tragedy. He's well matched with the considerably older Katherine Hepburn, here giving one of her most memorable screen performances. Although she has an annoying habit of filling up with tears and making grand-old-lady gestures, Hepburn adds enough vinegar to the character to make Eleanor a memorable screen monster. This is a considerable achievement considering how maudlin the scripting is, trying to turn Eleanor into a tragic figure but rendering her more self-pitying than sympathetic. Hepburn turns this around by playing the lines as if she was in a blackly comic farce and adding a nasty, bitter spin to otherwise innocent lines. She's absolutely right to do this - the film works best as a twisted marital comedy and the duologues between her and O'Toole, as they try to second guess each other without admitting their mutual need, are the highlights of the movie. I think the influence of Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf is everywhere in this film and there are times when you wish the two stars were dealing with that script rather than the one they've been given.

The rest of the cast work hard but make the mistake of showing you how hard they're working. Anthony Hopkins, in one of his earliest film roles, is compelling as the future Richard The Lionheart but I'm not sure that his camping around in a perpetual sulk is meant to be as funny as it is. The revelation that he and another burly young man have had an intimate relationship doesn't come as much of a surprise, or at least not to this viewer. Nigel Terry is a bit embarrassing as John but that's largely the fault of the script which makes him a buffoon from the beginning and never tries to find any wider dimension to his character. There's a good bit from Jane Merrow as Henry's adoptive daughter and mistress and John Castle, an underrated actor, is amusingly Machiavellian as the brilliant, treacherous Geoffrey. But if Anthony Harvey did nothing else - and it doesn't look like he did much - he understood that this is The Hepburn And O'Toole Show and he doesn't allow anyone to get in the way.

I think I must be temperamentally unsuited to James Goldman's writing style. Every line is a would-be zinger; all of his characters talk in epigrams. This wouldn't be so bad if his epigrams were witty but they're mostly tired and even the best examples are only mildly amusing. Like a historically inclined Neil Simon, Goldman seems to think that we'll get bored if the characters aren't constantly firing one-liners at each other and this means that his grasp of character development is tenuous at best. Henry II may well have been moody but I'm fairly sure that he wasn't as prone to sudden mood swings as he is here. His behaviour over the course of a single night suggests that he is, at best, seriously manic depressive if not schizophrenic. I don't think there's much point in asking for historical accuracy in this sort of soap opera but it is worth pointing out that there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that Henry and Eleanor were a genuine love match who fancied the pants off each other on first meeting and had several happy years before the rot set in. The film claims that they grew apart from first meeting. The simplifying of the characters is also irksome. Going by this film (and the earlier Becket in which O'Toole played a younger version of the character) Henry II was a moody git who spent all his time fucking, shouting and practicing his swordsmanship. That's a serious slur on the man who, more than any other ruler of England during the Middle Ages, created what we would understand as a form of government. Nor is the characterisation of John exactly accurate or even in the spirit of accuracy. Given that his script for Robin And Marion has all the same defects as this one (and was also saved by great performances from the leading couple), I have to conclude that his writing is simply not to my taste. This script won an Oscar by the way, which tends to cast doubt on the mental state of the Academy voters in 1968.

Maybe I'm being too critical. The Lion In Winter is reasonably diverting and the cinematography by Douglas Slocombe is stunning, especially the late afternoon exteriors. Peter Murton's art direction deserves praise as well although it's hard to be impressed by meticulous historical recreation when the period effect is ruined every time the characters begin to speak. On a more controversial note... I know that many people like John Barry's score, and it won him an Oscar, but I don't much like this sort of pastiche of medieval choral music and when the strings start then it just turns into sentimental mush. Overall, the film refuses to come to life and relies heavily on the work of its stars. They make it worthwhile but it's hard not to wish that you were watching them in a real film rather than this kind of middlebrow mess.

The Disc

Momentum are releasing The Lion In Winter as part of their 'Take One' budget range in September. It's quite an impressive disc in technical terms but there is only one special feature and that is rather disappointing.

The film is presented in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and the DVD is anamorphically enhanced. It's a very good transfer in some respects. The colours - largely shades of grey and blue with impressive splashes of bright colour in places - are well transferred and there is a clean, crisp appearance. The lack of grain has, unfortunately, led to edge enhancement in places. The picture is sometimes nicely detailed but the interiors tend towards softness. There is some artifacting visible at times, most noticeably during the darker interior scenes. A small amount of print damage is present but this is not a major problem.

The soundtrack is the original Mono track. This is fine with clear dialogue, well defined music and no distortion.

The only extra feature is a commentary from Anthony Harvey. Although its appearance on a budget disc is to be welcomed, it's a mediocre commentary track. Harvey speaks slowly and not very interestingly about his stars and the filming locations but the gaps between comments increase as the film goes on and become annoying during the second half. It might have helped to have given him an interviewer to assist him or to have placed him with one of the cast. Surprisingly, there is no theatrical trailer on the disc even though one was featured on the 1998 VHS widescreen re-release.

There are 30 chapter stops and the main menu is backed by John Barry's music score. There are a number of subtitles available but none in English.

I know that The Lion In Winter has a lot of admirers and none of them are likely to agree with my review. However, they are equally unlikely to be disappointed by this DVD release and, if you like the film, then it's definitely worth buying.

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