It's Christmas 1183, and King Henry II is planning to announce his successor to the throne. The jockeying for the crown, though, is complex. Henry has three sons and wants his boy Prince John to take over. Henry's wife, Queen Eleanor, has other ideas. She believes their son Prince Richard should be king. As the family and various schemers gather for the holiday, each tries to make the indecisive king choose their option. Written by
Magnificent cinematic medieval chess game, with every intricate move superbly thought out.
"The Lion in Winter" is a crowning achievement in cinematic story-telling. Adapted by Oscar-winning James Goldman from his witty, triumphant 1966 Broadway play that originally starred Robert Preston and Tony-winner Rosemary Harris, the story evolves around aging King Henry II mulling over a successor to the Plantagenet throne among his male progeny, while bringing his estranged, hateful clan together for the Christmas holidays.
Sparks really do fly in this wickedly elaborate chess game as the family player pieces weave thick webs of deceit and hatch insidious plots against each another, forming unholy, protean alliances that put those "Survivor" contestants to shame. The pure joy comes from seeing all of them try to outmaneuver each other with every new and different playing piece put on or taken off the board, hatching alternative schemes as fast as one can say "Long live the King!"
Robust, boisterous Peter O'Toole is a raging marvel as the battered but not yet beaten monarch, agonizing over the untrusting, Machiavellian-like brood he's sired, yet relishing the absolute power he holds and dangles over them. The glorious O'Toole is alternately barbarous and bombastic in one of the best roles of his career, and his loss of the Academy Award over, of all people, John Wayne, remains a travesty of justice.
The king's "brood" includes eldest son and heir-apparent, Richard (known as The Lion-hearted) whose fierce courage and burly warrior stance masquerades a forbidden tenderness detrimental to his standing as a king. Anthony Hopkins, in an auspicious screen debut, embodies these tortuous complexities within Richard perfectly, especially in his scenes as "mummy's favorite." The youngest and pruniest of the three princes is John, a rumpled, drooling, inane man-child impossibly spoiled as the King's favorite, played to pathetic amusement by a terrific Nigel Terry. Neglected middle son, Geoffrey, excellently portrayed with jaded, sliver-eyed cunning by John Castle, is a human blueprint of treachery and deceit. Resentful at being overlooked as even a possible contender, he's willing to sell his parents and brothers down the river for exact change.
Also invited to Christmas court is King Phillip II of France, on a revenge mission himself, who locks horns with Henry over lost lands and becomes a willing participant in these under-handed games. Timothy ("007") Dalton drips with smug, venal charm as the slender, softer, inexperienced king who can only battle Henry with words and wit, not weight. The only unblemished pawn here is Alais, the King's adoring young mistress, who is maliciously thrown to the lions by all as lady-in-waiting bait for the dueling princes. Demure, fragile Jane Merrow is the perfect choice for this innocent songbird with nothing and everything to lose
I have saved the best performance for last. As the King most duplicitous irritant, the inimitable Katharine Hepburn portrays Henry's duly banished Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine with all the unparalleled skill and inspired passion imaginable. Handed on a silver platter the lion's share of the best lines, Hepburn more than delivers the goods here, stealing the ripe proceedings from her talented co-stars. To watch her consummate Eleanor is to see the art of acting in its most passionate form. She is a revelation of perks and prods, of vibrant colors and shadings. She inhabits the passion, the power, the breeding, the deceitfulness, the desperate longing owed this character. Imprisonment (for inciting rebellions against her husband), has not dampened the fighting spirit nor dulled the sharp, calculating mind of this Queen. As in chess, this player is the game's most venturesome and versatile piece, and Hepburn more than lives up to its reputation, a worthy opponent with the best odds to check-mate her King. I have been known to say that the four-time Oscar winner was awarded for all the wrong movies -- excepting this one. She is unforgettable.
Topped with a glorious, inspiring, sometimes furious score (Oscar-winner John Barry), "The Lion in Winter" makes up for its stark, one-note surroundings with its bold, rich characters and ingenuous plotting. It is a hallmark of Gothic temperament and tone. As the old adage goes, "it's not who wins, it's how you play the game." 'Tis so true. So let the games begin!
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