Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole in the “Lion in Winter”

The time is 1183. The place is Chinon. We are in the Angevin Empire. And the film is Tony Harvey’s “The Lion in Winter.” On the surface, it seems a typical historical pseudo-epic, set on a smaller stage. It was hardly significant or unusual within the climate of the 1960s, where costume dramas reigned supreme. And yet, the film seems essential and worthy of attention all these years later.

Next month, “The Lion in Winter” will be celebrating its 50th anniversary. Its place in history is assured, owing to some compelling bits of trivia that accompanies it. For example, Katharine Hepburn won a record-breaking third Oscar for her work in it (a record for a third best actress win, and a record shared with Barbra Streisand for the only tie in the category). Peter O’Toole was nominated for playing King Henry again, just a few years after playing him in another Oscar-nominated performance in “Becket.” It features Anthony Hopkins’ debut in a major role in a film. And Timothy Dalton in his film debut. The 1film, an adaptation of a moderately successful stage play from a few years earlier, deserves to be remembered for more than the trivia that accompanies it, though. In its presentation of the 12th century’s royal world is exciting, sharp, shrewd, fun and funny. From where I sit, it’s one of the most compelling films of the decade.

The first person we hear and see is the eponymous King, King Henry II, who sits on the throne. His estranged wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, is imprisoned in Salisbury Tower. Henry has three sons (there are more in history, but three for this story) and he is uncertain which of the triad should be his successor. He knows that he is in the winter of his life and he cannot rule forever. He is having carnal relations with the much younger Princes Alais of France, given to the court as the wife of the future king in order to unite France and England. Henry’s choices for future King consist of the stubborn Richard, the duplicitous Geoffrey and the petulant John. It is Christmas, though, and a chance for a brief pause in the family bickering. As the family prepares for the holidays, though, King Philip of France makes his way to Chinon to demand that his sister, Princess Alais, be immediately married to the new king, whomever that may be. But such a marriage seems dubious at best. And so the family and the interlopers must plot and scheme and fight and scream until someone wins and someone loses.

Fifty years onward, “The Lion in Winter” stands apart from films of its ilk of that decade. Costume dramas about kings and queens continue to be major film moments (“Outlaw King,” which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, is a straightforward but compelling one, and later this year “Mary Queen of Scots” will seek to push the genre further). But, “The Lion in Winter” is not only a costume historical epic. There are two obvious predecessors that emphasise its unusualness—the aforementioned “Becket” and the 1966 Oscar winner, “A Man for All Seasons.” The two films and Harvey’s are all notable adaptations of plays but significantly “Winter” was the least successful of the plays when it premiered. Tony Harvey’s film supports the oft-repeated supposition that good but not great literature makes for better films. Freed from the weight of prestige that “Seasons” and (especially) “Becket” are limited by in some ways, Harvey and screenwriter James Goldman (who wrote the libretto for the excellent musical Follies just a few years later) enjoy leaning into the peculiar, irreverent and sometimes even perverse in the film.

In the age of irreverent and sometimes anachronistic period films something like “The Lion Winter” probably seems less revolutionary but it’s not difficult to see where the through-line goes from then to now. The “Lion in Winter” is an historical epic but it’s also family drama. It is political but it is also personal. It’s a mythical story of legacy but also a comedy about squabbling idiots. The film’s best asset is its relentless and even exasperating unwillingness to pin itself down to one thing. At first it suggests a scenario that seems oddly without stakes, except the question of who “wins” the battles the film centres on is irrelevant. “The Lion in Winter” celebrates the barbed way that family interactions destroy and inform our lives. O’Toole gives his best performance as the King, but it is the incredibly sexy, difficult and exasperating performance by Hepburn, who in her sixties is as beguiling as she was thirty years before, which carries the film. Harvey relishes her and Hepburn recites every line with an arch joy. The moment when speaking of a dead rival she intones, “She smiled to excess but she chewed with real distinction,” emphasises the slightly bizarre world these royals inhabit.

By the time the film has ended, it’s difficult to explicitly identify any one person’s achievements, and it’s that oddness that makes “The Lion in Winter” feel essential half a century later. It does not present itself as a character but beneath the costumes, and the music and the production design, the film is a searing assessment of the strangeness of family. Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn are near the heights of their gifts, while Tony Harvey has never achieved such success before or after. It’s odd how his career seemed to stall after, but I’ll always argue for his inclusion as a great director just on the strength of this film.

The material here is delicious red-meat and the actors, ranging from good to exceptional, are all consummate gourmands – they can consume with the best of them. John Barry’s score is foreboding and impressive and complements the subterfuge and intrigue. Forgive me if I gush, but it’s a film working on all levels and even when it should not work, when its theatrical beats threaten to upend the narrative, it succeeds in spite of and sometimes because of it. And even in a film of so much that works well, it all comes back to the story of a King and his Queen. O’Toole and Hepburn, decades apart in age, are a believable couple exuding the chemistry the film requires. When the film ends, the King turns to his Queen and says, “I hope we never die.” She answers without sentiment, “So do I.” Historical epics will come and they will go but I hope the memory of “The Lion in Winter” never dies.

The Lion in Winter is available on Amazon Video, Vudu, iTunes and Google Play

(Email your questions or comments to Andrew at almasydk@gmail.com)

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