Director Anthony Harvey
Starring Katharine Hepburn, Peter O’Toole, Anthony Hopkins, Timothy Dalton
Released 17th October 2016
I shouldn’t mention the “C” word in October – and by that I mean Christmas. But it’s impossible to talk about Anthony Harvey’s Oscar winner The Lion In Winter without at least a passing reference. For one thing, it’s the setting for the film – and the original stage play of same name from James Goldman – at the court of King Henry II in 1183. There’s also something resembling a Christmas tree, presents for everybody – and it’s all a total anachronism.
Yet, it’s also the perfect backdrop. The time of year when families come together – and very often argue. And, boy, do Henry (Peter O’Toole) and his family argue! Months after the death of his son and heir, Henry, he’s obsessed with sorting out the succession, so he summons his three remaining sons, Richard, Geoffrey and John, to court. And he demands that his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn), who he’s kept imprisoned for the past ten years, attends as well. They all scheme, plot and fight to decide who will wear the crown after Henry’s death.
There’s two other key players. Alais, a French princess who’s been long promised to Richard but is Henry’s lover. And the young King Phillip II of France (Timothy Dalton) who has arrived to determine Alais’ future but also has something of a past with Richard (Anthony Hopkins).
It’s a film with built-in curiosity value. It marked the screen debuts of both Hopkins and Dalton, while Hepburn made history by winning her third Best Actress Oscar and uniquely tying with Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl. She’d also won the previous year for Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? and picked up her fourth in 1982 for On Golden Pond. For O’Toole, this was the second time he had played Henry II, the first being in Becket (1964) set 12 years earlier. He was Oscar nominated for both performances.
This restoration and re-release on DVD arrives just short of the film’s 50th birthday and it is something of a period piece. Not just because of its setting, but also its style. Its stage origins are transparently clear, even though it starts with a series of exteriors and ends with one. The bulk of the action takes place inside the castle and it’s not difficult to image how it would have looked in the theatre. And it’s a brooding, shadowy setting that creates a real intensity, that sense of another argument just around the corner waiting to explode.
The acting, by today’s standards, looks just a tad overwrought, with the scenery in imminent danger of being chewed, but the tungsten tipped dialogue translates brilliantly to the big screen. Both O’Toole and Hepburn have some fabulously savage yet witty lines. Perhaps the most memorable of all comes from Hepburn, after her most vicious confrontation with O’Toole. Slumped on the floor, shattered and unkempt, she lets out a sigh of resignation and wonders “What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”
The pair dominate the film, which moves from one set piece to another, sometimes a two hander, sometimes more. Both Anthony Hopkins, who plays Richard (later Richard The Lionheart), and Timothy Dalton make impressive debuts. Henry’s second son, the cold blooded Geoffrey, is played chillingly by John Castle and the only weakness is Nigel Terry as John (later King John) who, frankly, over-acts something rotten.
Time hasn’t been kind to The Lion In Winter, but it hasn’t erased the film’s power and magnetism. It’s like watching a high-stakes human chess game, with the characters manipulating each other to get the upper hand. I first saw it as a teenager in a double bill with Becket and, if you can get your hands on that DVD as well, it’s a smart move. Not only do you see how Henry II develops from the young king to the grizzled older one, but it means a lot of the references in this film make more sense.
After nearly 50 years, the lion is still roaring.
The Lion In Winter is re-released on DVD on Monday, 17th October and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 20th October.