Directed By: Anthony Harvey
Written By: James Goldman (based on his own play)
Starring: Peter O’Toole, Katherine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins, Timothy Dalton.
The Lion in Winter is in itself much lik e the animal of its title. It is a ferocious film, snappy and sure-footed, expertly taking charge of its intricate plot and plethora of creaturely characters with extreme confidence. It’s loud and powerful, but nimble, a larger-than-life presence always rattling in its bones as it spins together an incredibly diverse range of performances and intriguing drama, uniquely underlined with subtle humour.
James Goldman’s Oscar winning screenplay is the best I’ve come across in this series to date. He is working from his own Broadway play, a story set on Christmas in the 12th century, detailing a series of negotiations revolving around King Henry II, his three sons, wife, and The King of France, Phillip II. The story bears only sketchy affinities to reality. The characters are somewhat authentic however the plot itself is fictional, but this isn’t to diminish Goldman’s labyrinth storyline which he ingeniously navigates us through with mesmerising dialogue.
The fingerprints of Goldman’s work here can be lifted from some of the great screenplays to come; David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross with its fervidity, whirling plot of characters clamouring for the upper-hand and humorous underpinnings, and the work of Aaron Sorkin, with its blaring intellect, demand for franticness, and poetic put-downs.
The story is a cat-and-mouse game of politics fixated on who is to become Henry II’s eventual heir. Peter O’Toole is Henry and is fantastically unhinged and scenery chewing as the cocky and power-hungry patriarch; “oh God, but I do love being King” he exclaims. O’Toole uses every muscle of his face and every nuanced inflection of the voice in his turn as Henry II, his confidence and marvelling at his own cunning injecting the film with much of the humour that fringes it, but who as easily as he makes one laugh swivels the tone to bleak and ominous, his character volatile and barbaric in mentality. One such act of moral barbarism is his imprisonment of his Queen, Eleanor (Katherine Hepburn), who proves to be his greatest rival. Hepburn would win an Oscar for her performance (jointly with Barbra Streisand) and wonderfully renders a mind that’s at once conniving, fragile, affectionate, and callous. When Christmas beckons Henry releases his wife for the occasion, setting the stage for the two to feud in their ambitions of who is to be the heir. For Henry it is to be their youngest, John (Nigel Terry), for Eleanor it’s their eldest survivor, Richard (Anthony Hopkins).
The King and Queen (perfectly played and textured in their performances) are not unlike George and Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? They are spiteful and merciless in their dealings with one another, a wealth of collected traumas slowly being revealed as they deceive, manipulate and crush. However there is less vitriol and more of a sporting edge to their rivalry, not to downplay their obvious cruelties. There is a glowing affection which rears its head every so often, only to be promptly battered by the callousness required to gain the political upper-hand, their relationship analogous to a game of emotional whack-a-mole, comically built on a sturdy ground of admiration for each other’s talents for playing the game.
The children are not to be reduced to mere pawns in the feud however. John is troll-like, snivelling and foul in his sense of entitlement and plagued with cowardice, but whose mind is solely occupied with being King. A coward is one thing that eldest brother Richard is not. The “Lionheart” as he is known, his desperation for the Kingship worn on his sleeve, brute savagery anchoring his demeanour. “War agrees with you” Eleanor tells him, and we could hardly refute her. However anguish deeply infects his soul, a hidden vulnerability magnificently teased out through the stoic exterior by Hopkins. And of course there is the middle brother Geoffrey (John Castle). Even more stoic, Geoffrey is an utterly disaffected, void of empathy whose greatest asset is his innocuousness. He is a chilly calibrator, slyly plotting his own ascension, his arms constantly crossed in quiet confidence.
Complicating matters is King Phillip II of France, a sharp featured and steely eyed Timothy Dalton. The most devilish and vindictive of all the combatants, this King demands his half-sister, who he has loaned to Henry, and is Henry’s mistress, be immediately married to the future heir, as was once agreed upon by the two, otherwise he will reclaim land currently possessed by Henry.
There is a scene in the film where Henry comes to Phillip’s door for negotiations. Unbeknownst to the patriarch, each of his sons stand in the room, all veiled by different tapestries after they came to Phillip to further their own prospects of becoming King, each act under every nose of the others. It is the perfect encapsulation of the ingenious and thrilling minefield of deceit and plotting that permeates the story. A most brilliantly realised chess game where it is unclear if any one player is one move behind or ten plays ahead, and where the same-coloured pieces have no allegiance to one another.
As Richard would put it, it is a web that would tangle spiders, but it is a web so unpredictable and intelligent, rife with imminently quotable dialogue, that you are all too happy to entangle yourself in it. It is a web expertly spun by the writer, perfectly inhabited by the performers and amazingly navigated by director Anthony Harvey. Once an editor of such films as Dr. Strangelove, Harvey brings all of his editor’s sensibility to his crafting of the story. He finds the perfect pace, the film moving at a break-neck speed without you ever feeling the whiplash, whilst remaining so acute that the torment of his characters is never lost in the shuffle. Harvey impossibly tempers the narrative freight train and allows the script’s themes of family, manipulation, love, power, greed and the expendability of human life that underpins it all to arise with an uncompromising natural beauty, resulting in a film of ceaseless entertainment.