The Lion in Winter (1968, Anthony Harvey)
This pricey-looking Oscar winner — from a popular play by James Goldman, who also scripted — was a major box office success in the Man for All Seasons era of Hollywood anglophilia. It’s not dissimilar to Peter Glenville’s heady and melodramatic Becket, with Peter O’Toole reprising his Henry II in a more aged, restrained guise during a violent and searching Christmas that has him making a crucial decision about his successor. It has a lot of the same problems historical dramas frequently do — an absurd reverence toward the monarchy, for one thing, envisioning the king as some all-encompassing portrait of fading masculinity — but it also seems at first to be exuberant enough in its florid camera movements and breathtaking locations that it could make something cinematic of all this.
It’s not to be, though The Lion in Winter is at least not as stilted and slow-witted as its predecessor. Goldman throws heavy melodrama into the not particularly significant tale of a debate between King and the jettisoned Duchess Eleanor over just what’s to be done about those darn kids: Richard the Lionheart and John, both future kings (spoiler alert), and the plotting nincompoop Geoffrey. The king of France drops by to chat about his leading of Richard down the sinful path of you-know-what, and there is much grousing about what a drag it is getting old and no longer being virile enough to rule over family like one rules over a kingdom, though still plenty active enough to be fathering numerous illegitimate children with numerous mistresses, but we digress. The whole thing is fiction with a skeleton of history, but that’s not really the point: the film hinges completely on the complex, unfair, shattered, mutually destructive but oddly respectful relationship of Henry and Eleanor, who create unexpected fireworks each time the eyes lock and the tongues click (not literally, right).
It helps that O’Toole is more commanding and emotional than usual, though he’s handily out-acted by Katharine Hepburn, playing a calculating, witty and wounded Eleanor in a late contender for her signature role. (It’s interesting to see Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton so early in their careers, though Hopkins’ Richard the Lionheart is, like all three of the sons and potential heirs, a hollow caricature.) There’s something winning and beautiful in the two leads’ interactions, in even a moment so contrived as Eleanor’s flowery entrance — she comes in flanked and glorious by boat, as we all should at some point in our lives.
Unfortunately the film finally wanders into the even deadlier problem area of transplanted stage plays — it drowns in talk (oddly contemporary-sounding talk at that, though there are a few great lines), and eventually it seems as though the film itself is shouting. At length. The sense of pacing is lost and the scenes start to feel repetitive, redundant. There’s little doubt that it can be a crowd-pleaser for the Masterpiece Theatre crowd, who tend frequently to put up with good storytelling diluted through low-grade production value without much cinematic grace, and now as then the audience is very much the sort of people who wrote it: those for whom the tiresome comings and goings of a long-dead monarch are the stuff of highest, most relevant drama.
It’s somewhat odd to fathom that this film dates from (and commanded attention in) the late ’60s, one of the most creatively fertile times of the century all through the world. In a sense that can be construed as a compliment — it still retains much of its appeal and odd timelessness, after all — but that all depends on what you’re looking for when you sit down. For everyone outside of the bubble consumed by thoughts of privileged bed-hopping and lines of succession, the film is still worth seeing for Hepburn’s performance alone (and likely O’Toole’s, if you generally like him more than I do), but it’s hard not to wonder what a more accomplished director like Richard Lester could’ve done with material that seems just lively enough to have warranted more playfulness — of the sort that’s frustratingly hinted at early on.