Why I Love… #60: The Lion In Winter

60Year: 1968

Director: Anthony Harvey

Stars: Peter O’Toole (Henry II), Katharine Hepburn (Eleanor of Aquitaine), Anthony Hopkins (Richard), John Castle (Geoffrey), Nigel Terry (John), Timothy Dalton (Philip II), Jane Merrow (Alais)

Genre: Period Drama

For it’s Christmas setting I deliberately held off covering The Lion In Winter until now in an attempt to make the essay’s publication somehow topical. Last year at this time I was talking about my festive connection to Singin’ In The Rain. I thought picking a film I associate with the holiday season might become a nice tradition. Of course now, with Peter O’Toole’s passing, it has become topical for a more lamentable reason. It becomes, in part, a requiem.

O’Toole’s full-throated performance here as Henry II is one of my all-time favourites. He brings larger-than-life Thespian clout to the role, booming out his victories, caterwauling his lamentations, all with riveting conviction. It’s a hearty performance. He feels kingly, strutting about his courtyards and dining halls. A veritable lion within his den. When I think about O’Toole it is largely this movie that I remember. But then, it’s one of my favourites for a great many reasons, despite a few minor shortcomings.

These shortcomings are evident most keenly near the beginning, as Anthony Harvey’s film falters at trying to expand its source material. From a screenplay by James Goldman based on his own play, an attempt is made to break the story from the stage with the inclusion of a beachfront battle sequence, overseen by forgotten son Geoffrey. It’s quite frankly a little feeble, and sets expectations a little low. But then, The Lion In Winter isn’t about kinetic action, instead thrills are found in electric dialogue, as Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine plot tirelessly against each other in a race to secure the future of the throne. Move and counter-move. It’s intellectual savagery and it’s utterly, utterly superb.

The film is obliquely referenced in Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing (the screenwriter is obviously a fan) as his fictional President Bartlet’s favourite film. Sorkin’s eagerness to show his affection for The Lion In Winter speaks volumes. His work has always been about auditory, the cadence and rhythms of speech and how they can move like music. The Lion In Winter‘s power is in its immense dialogue, a wicked symphony of barbed put-downs, witty wordplay and cutthroat attacks. Harvey’s visual storytelling may prove a little plain, but it is more than made up for by watching some incredibly fine actors rise to the challenge of giving these great words life and vigor.

Someone as commanding as O’Toole demands a fearsome match. He gets exactly that in Katharine Hepburn. Again when I think of her, this is the film that immediately comes to mind. Her Eleanor is part wicked witch, part vainglorious fallen angel. Eleanor strives to maintain a veneer of bitch-queen, forever threatening to devour her litter, yet Hepburn counters this with a deftly played vulnerability. She only blinks a couple of times, but it’s enough to let the viewer see the terrifying facade for what it is.

Around O’Toole and Hepburn is a supporting cast to dream of, as The Lion In Winter forefronts two aspiring actors at the beginning of their careers. Timothy Dalton is a young wolf as Philip II, barely able to contain his snarling glee as he watches the royal family tearing itself to pieces. More prominently still there is Anthony Hopkins as Eleanor’s golden child Richard. Hopkins appears here in one of his first film roles, and it’s readily apparent that he is capable of greatness.

I feel I’ve been unfair to Harvey, suggesting the film works in spite of his efforts. This is a disservice. Harvey lets the actors hold court, generously giving away the movie to them. It is not a frivolously directed film, but it is by no means lacking. One suspects he is as in love with Goldman’s dialogue as I am.

All truly great writing speaks for itself. Like The West Wing, you could get by with The Lion In Winter without ever turning to the screen. But you’d miss these fine actors storming up against one another. And the committed feeling of authenticity in this depiction of an 1183 royal family Christmas. The grand score, the atmospheric locations. One wonders whether Harvey’s bravura isn’t there after all; a director without ego? Watching it back now, it’s a relentlessly impressive piece of work.

And one which connects to my own past. Quite ironically for a film about family dysfunctions, it kindles some fond memories of times with my own father, scattershot as they are. We would rarely agree on anything, but it was he who brought the film to my attention. When the boundaries of our differences kept us as separates, The Lion In Winter would be a bridge we could fall back on. It leaves the film strangely bittersweet for me. For two hours here was a comfortable silence we could share together, as O’Toole and Hepburn circle one another, daggers drawn.

“I hope we never die!” shouts Henry II in goodbye to Eleanor at the end of the film. The music swells and we’re left no closer to resolution but satisfied by the battles won and lost and merely stalled at stalemate. It’s a line that has rang in my ears these few days since the announcement of O’Toole’s death. He is gone from the world and it’s a sad thing – it was a better place for the part he played in it – but through cinema he will live on. The movies have made a man immortal. His works will continue to be cherished, and The Lion In Winter will continue for me. A perennial favourite.

To the uninitiated I say give it a go, even if the subject matter isn’t to your usual tastes. In honesty it’s not often to mine; I’m not a royalist or a man with any keen interest in history. Whether these things represent downfalls of character is not for me to say. But regardless here is a film which transcends subject matter on the heels of its own greatness. I can think of precious few movies I’d rather be watching this Christmas.

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