Talk Cinema's Ron Falzone Discusses Anthony Harvey's The Lion In Winter

What is it about tales of the ancient British royalty that brings out the stiffness in filmmakers?  So many of these stories are filled with “thees” and “thous” more appropriate to biblical epics while other lines hit the ear with a thud when said by actors who can’t even approximate an appropriate accent.  Believe me, if you’ve ever seen Black Shield of Falworth and heard Tony Curtis cry out, “Yondah lies da castle of my foddah,” then you know what I mean.

In general, these stories are seductive traps.  They offer the kinds of cinematic opportunities for spectacle and pseudo-Shakespearean role that make directors and actors run to them.  Sadly, when they get there, most find themselves in unwinnable combat with scripts that are either struggling to make the past feel relevant to the present, or ones that eschew any sense of recognizable human behavior.

This is not to say that all of these are bad.  In fact, there was a golden age for movies about England’s distant royalty, a period in the mid to late 60’s when these movies were able to balance past and present, ideas and spectacle, in a way that was both cinematic and entertaining.  Movies like Becket, The War Lord, A Man for All Seasons, Cromwell and Anne of a Thousand Days revitalized our view of history by treating kings and queens as living persons rather than moldy icons.

And none of these did it better than The Lion in Winter.

Set in the court of Henry II (Peter O’Toole) and his usually absent queen Eleanor (Katharine Hepburn) during the Christmas season of 1183, The Lion in Winter plays less like a stodgy history lesson and more like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in tights and doublets.  Eleanor has spent her married life fomenting feudal wars against her king and familial wars against her husband.  Tired of the constant strife, Henry has kept her locked away in a convent in Chignon and only lets her out for the holidays.  While he thinks this is a wise move, it also allows her plenty of time to plot her next coup.

This is the dysfunctional family par excellence.  Not surprisingly, these two have sired three sons, all of whom are willing to do anything to stab each other and their parents in the back.  Richard the warrior (a beefy Anthony Hopkins in his first movie) is closeted and under the thumb of a mother he loves too much but hates even more.  Geoffrey (John Castle) is pure Machiavelli and smarting under the knowledge that he is never more than an afterthought in the family’s goals.  And then there is John (Nigel Terry), the son destined to rule so poorly that he will be forced to accept the Magna Carta.  Here, he is played as a near idiot, constantly manipulated by all involved when all he wants to do is sit in his room and play with the toy guillotine he made for his father.  All will converge to celebrate a Christmas filled with deceit, treachery and, if needed, assassination and civil war. 

And who can’t relate to that?

If The Lion in Winter was just another “thees and thous” royal romp it would quickly grow tedious.  What separates it, though, from other movies of its ilk is, well, everything.

The play by James Goldman on which this is based was a notable disaster on Broadway.  Goldman seems to have tracked the reasons for this failure and built his screenplay accordingly.  The play dragged, but this movie flies.  Although confined almost entirely to the interiors of the castle, the story is in constant motion through corridors, anterooms and bed chambers.  The director, Anthony Harvey (who came to this project after serving as Stanley Kubrick’s film editor), seizes on this idea.  Using Olivier’s 1948 version of Hamlet as his guide, he makes the confinement of space into an advantage, allowing the actors’ energies to ricochet off the walls and create a sense that at any moment these walls will crumble under their onslaught.

The cast is more than up for the challenge.  The sheer pleasure each member is taking in the act of performance is plainly apparent.  O’Toole and Hepburn find a palpable chemistry that propels their love/hate relationship, each reveling in the opportunity to compete for center screen.  With the exception of her Mary Tyrone in A Long Day’s Journey into Night, Hepburn has never been better, and O’Toole manages the trick of being both grating and ingratiating at the same time.  The three sons as well as Timothy Dalton as the boy king of France could easily have been swamped but each takes up the challenge.  It is to O’Toole and Hepburn’s credit as members of this ensemble that they give their young colleagues the spotlight whenever it is needed.

Tying the film together is the extraordinary score by John Barry.  Musicologists could complain that the liturgical aspects are at least 400 years out of period, but these melt in the face of the dramatic need for the score.  This is an epic story and damn well requires an epic score.  Flutes and drums may have been more period appropriate, but these would have paled when matched to the instrumentation provided by the performers.  Right from the opening blast of Barry’s title theme we are placed precisely where we need to be to enter this world of bigger than life characters and oversized intrigue.

At the time of its release, The Lion in Winter was thought by many to be a sequel to 1964’s Becket.  After all, it told the story of a younger Henry II also played by Peter O’Toole.  But the comparisons beyond this are few.  Whereas Becket is a sardonic look at the incompatible relationship between God and King, The Lion in Winter eschews any philosophical questions in favor of a dark comedy/drama that could be about any dysfunctional family at any dysfunctional time.

Which reminds me:  When does the next season of The Crown begin?