The Lion in Winter originated as a stage play taking medieval politics as the setting for a dysfunctional family jeu de massacre, set at an 1183 Christmas court where English king Henry II and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, scheme, squabble and plot over which of their three surviving sons will succeed him: blunt warrior Richard, scheming diplomat Geoffrey or pouting idiot John. James Goldman's exquisitely-written 1966 Broadway hit is extremely modern in its snappy dialogue, creating unusual but appropriate anachronisms with its period setting, even though its confluence of politics and personality devolves maybe a little too much and too often into upscale period soap opera.
That the story revolves about the achingly difficult calls demanded of people by the power games required to survive at such rarefied, kingly heights (and that the plot itself is a purely fictional construct based on real-life characters) while at the same time transforming it into a very contemporary study of modern family dynamics merely underlines the soap opera aspects, expertly swept away by a stellar cast of theatre veterans - none of which involved in the original Broadway production.
Peter O'Toole as Henry and Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor, in the roles originally created on stage by Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris, are a perfect match in wits and delivery, even though the advantage, of course, goes to an utterly divine Ms. Hepburn (who won an Academy Award for her pains). The supporting cast, including then young upstarts Anthony Hopkins, Timothy Dalton and Nigel Terry, is as solid as they come; and the volley of one-liners exchanged by the characters expertly and minutiously managed by the performers. As filmed by Brit director Anthony Harvey, here in his sophomore feature after a career as an editor (notably on Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove), it makes for magnetically fascinating drama, underlined by John Barry's haunting score.
It is also, mysteriously, a somewhat clumsy, lopsided prestige picture, since Mr. Harvey's use of widescreen is rather non-descript and his sense of rhythm somewhat off-handed for someone trained as an editor (and a few of the blocky, abrupt cutting choices by John Bloom are rather unexplainable). But the sheer presence and commitment of the cast to the extraordinary dialogue of Mr. Goldman, as well as the all-too-realistic medieval sets by Peter Murton (shot on location in Ireland), raise The Lion in Winter above the prestige award fodder picture it may seem to be at first look.
Peter O'Toole, Katharine Hepburn; Jane Merrow, John Castle, Timothy Dalton, Anthony Hopkins, Nigel Terry; Nigel Stock.
Director, Anthony Harvey; screenplay, James Goldman, from his stage play, The Lion in Winter; cinematography, Douglas Slocombe (colour by Technicolor, Panavision); music, John Barry; art director, Peter Murton; costume designer, Margaret Furse; editor, John Bloom; producer, Martin Poll (Avco Embassy Pictures, Haworth Productions), USA/United Kingdom, 1968, 134 minutes.
Screened: DVD, December 25th 2011.