UK Release Date: 17th October 2016
Runtime: 129 minutes
Director: Anthony Harvey
Writer: James Goldman
Starring: Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins, John Castle, Nigel Terry, Jane Merrow, Timothy Dalton
Synopsis: At Christmas court, an ageing Henry II must deal with complex peace negotiations, whilst his three sons and estranged wife scheme against him to ensure that they get their preference for the next in line to the throne.
It seems strange, looking back, to think that there was ever a time when Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton were not yet cinematic royalty. That time was 1968, when both performers made their big screen debuts in historical drama The Lion in Winter. The film is predominantly a heavyweight battle of wits and acting chops between Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn, but there’s plenty of room for the supporting players to make their presence felt in this most elegant, sharply-written of royal dramas. It’s Game of Thrones, as written by someone with a sense of humour.
Henry II (O’Toole) is holding court in France over Christmas and has released his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (Hepburn) from the dungeon for the occasion. Henry is embroiled in negotiations with King Philip II of France (Dalton), who expects his half-sister Alais (Jane Merrow) to be married to one of Henry’s sons – Richard (Hopkins), John (Nigel Terry) and Geoffrey (John Castle). Henry and Eleanor have different ideas as to which son will ascend to the throne, which leads to plenty of scheming and back-stabbing as the family members jockey for position.
The Lion in Winter is the sort of film they simply do not make any more. Sweeping historical drama and political wrangling is now more commonplace on television than it is on the silver screen. The story was adapted by James Goldman from his own play and, as such, it’s a theatrical production in every sense, from amped-up acting to stagey direction. In a lesser film, this might have been a distraction, but this film is captivating in its performances so the lack of visual invention seldom matters.
At the centre of the film is the constant clashing between O’Toole and Hepburn – two acting titans grappling with ripe, rich dialogue that packs in multiple layers of meaning. Neither of these characters means what they are saying and their performances communicate that. Anthony Hopkins, meanwhile, has the unnervingly still intensity here that would become the key hallmark of his Hannibal Lecter decades later. Special mention must also go to John Castle, who is The Lion in Winter‘s equivalent of Petyr Baelish, playing just about everybody off against each other to improve his standing.
There’s little in the way of genuine incident or action in The Lion in Winter, but this serves the dialogue more than anything else. Goldman’s script is a lush, complex tapestry that gives all of the characters clear definition and their own moments to shine. It’s testament to the quality of the writing that the rest of the cast is not buried beneath O’Toole’s hulking powerhouse of a performance, which occasionally threatens to overwhelm everyone. Thankfully, Hepburn is more than a match and her Best Actress Oscar win was richly deserved – as indeed was Goldman’s.
The Lion in Winter isn’t quite a perfect film and suffers a little from stately pacing, as well as a rather inflated running time. The film has a handful of potent, engrossing showcase scenes, but the connective tissue between them occasionally falters and leaves the thing feeling flat. As a fertile ground for its actors, The Lion in Winter is something truly special and a sumptuous big screen take on an area of storytelling that is now too often reserved for time-consuming HBO boxsets.
There’s a commentary track and a few interviews with cast members, but nothing all that exciting,
Pop or Poop?
Powerhouse performances and an utterly delicious script make The Lion in Winter a very worthy addition to your DVD shelf. It may not seem like the kind of movie that screams “must-see” in 2016, but it’s several days shorter than Game of Thrones and every bit as entertaining.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.
The Lion in Winter is available on DVD now courtesy of Studiocanal.