Reviewer: Freda Cooper
Director: Anthony Harvey
Stars: Katharine Hepburn, Peter O’Toole, Anthony Hopkins, Timothy Dalton
Released: 17th October 2016
The 1960s were halcyon days for cinemas fans who enjoyed a bit of history – and British history in particular. The Oscar winning ‘A Man For All Seasons’ (1966) and ‘Anne Of The Thousand Days’ (1969) put the reign of Henry VIII in the spotlight, while one of his predecessors also had two films devoted to him. ‘Becket’ (1964) was the first to feature Peter O’Toole as Henry II. And the second, ‘The Lion In Winter’ (1968) is re-released as a newly restored DVD this week, just a couple of years short of its fiftieth birthday.
The setting is Christmas, at the King’s court in France, complete with what looks like a giant tree and presents for all. Anachronistic, of course, but spikily pertinent nonetheless: the time of year when families come together – and when they argue. And this is a family that argues like their lives depend on it! Months after the death of his oldest son and heir, Henry II (O’Toole) is obsessed with sorting out the succession, so he summons his three remaining sons, Richard (Anthony Hopkins), Geoffrey (John Castle) and John (Nigel Terry) to court. And he also demands that his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn), who he’s kept imprisoned for the past ten years, attends as well. The result is scheming and plotting by the bucket load to decide who will succeed the aging king – and some explosive rows.
Aside from the storyline, this is a film with curiosity value running through its veins. Both Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton made their big screen debuts. Hepburn made history by winning her third Best Actress Oscar and uniquely tied for the award with Barbra Streisand in ‘Funny Girl’. And for O’Toole, it was the second time he’d played the king, the first being four years earlier in ‘Becket’. He was Oscar nominated for both performances.
It’s also something of a period piece. Its stage origins – it was based on the play of the same name by James Goldman – are transparently obvious, even if the film opens and closes with a series of exteriors. The bulk of the action, essentially a series of set pieces, happens in the castle, making it look stage-bound. Yet the brooding, shadowy setting creates both intensity and the expectation of yet another explosive argument just around the corner. Or behind the next tapestry.
Visually, the restoration has made it sharper and fresher, but the acting, by today’s standards, looks overwrought at times and the scenery gets more than just nibbled. On the plus side – and it’s a very big plus – the tungsten tipped dialogue translates wonderfully well to the screen, with both Hepburn and O’Toole delivering some gloriously savage yet witty lines with unashamed relish. Hepburn gets the most memorable one of the lot, as she recovers from a particularly vicious encounter with her husband. Slumped on the floor, shattered and dishevelled, she sighs and wonders out loud, “What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”
In some ways, time hasn’t been overly kind to ‘The Lion In Winter’, but the film’s power and magnetism remain intact. It’s like watching a game of human chess, with all the players manipulating everybody around them to get the upper hand. Fascinating, dramatic and richly enjoyable. After nearly 50 years, this is one lion that’s still roaring.