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The Lion in Winter

You think your family is stressful over the holidays?

What if the annual Christmas reunion means that Dad orders Mom out of the dungeon where she's been kept for ten years? (Well, she did lead all those civil wars against him.) What about their three (surviving) sons — the eldest a soldier, the middle one plotting Machiavellian intrigue, the youngest a "walking pustule" — who arrive wondering when the old man is going to die and each willing to help him along? Which son will Dad force to marry his lovely mistress? And who's that crashing the party? Why, it's the eldest son's former lover, the King of France (whose pop once was married to Mom).

Pass the nog, but unsheath your dagger. In 1968's The Lion in Winter it's Christmas Eve and a family is gathering. Trouble is, it's A.D. 1183 and the family is aging King Henry II of England (Peter O'Toole at his most robust and bearish), his imprisoned wife, willful Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn, chewing the role with sharpened teeth), and their three power-hungry princes: proud Richard the Lionheart (Anthony Hopkins in his big-screen debut), ugly John of later Magna Carta fame (Nigel Terry), and the sly middle brother Geoffrey (John Castle).

Exclaims Henry, getting into the spirit of the occasion, "What shall we hang, the holly or each other?"

Also along for the holiday get-together is France's young King Philip (Timothy Dalton, all of 22 in his screen debut). His past, well, friendship with Richard further twists the tinsel. And then there's Henry's long-time mistress — Philip's sister and the eventual wife of whichever son becomes Henry's successor — Alais (Jane Merrow).

Jesus himself would have a hard time bringing peace to this yuletide household. Here's a family whose every deed and word is a chess move or a dagger stroke. Alliances political and sexual rise and fall amid skillful clashing and scheming for Henry's throne. Meanwhile, what's at stake is merely the future of England and France.

But that's just life as usual for this clan. As Henry puts it, "I've snapped and plotted all my life. There's no other way to be alive, king and fifty all at once." Eleanor only quips dryly, "Well, what family doesn't have its ups and downs?"

At the center of this regal melee stand Henry and Eleanor, married 31 years. Their combination of ferocious mutual fondness and take-no-prisoners warfare — on battlefields and in bedrooms — make them one of cinema's great complicated relationships. Eleanor, like Henry a product of a long life among various royal houses (she was formerly married to the previous King Louis of France), clings to her past as one of history's most powerful women. "I even made poor Louis take me on Crusade," she reminisces. "I dressed my maids as Amazons and rode bare-breasted halfway to Damascus. Louis had a seizure and I damn near died of windburn — but the troops were dazzled."

Even pretty Alais, who Eleanor raised nearly as her own daughter, is no babe in the woods here. "Kings, queens, knights everywhere you look, and I'm the only pawn," she says. "I haven't got a thing to lose — that makes me dangerous."

Loosely based on historical events, The Lion in Winter was written by James Goldman, the brother of screenwriter and novelist William Goldman. He adapted his own Broadway play for the screen with few changes. Swords clang and the dungeon door slams open and shut, but there are no extraneously cinematized action set pieces. And the cast does tend to lean into the theatrical bombast as if Brooks Atkinson is in the back row.

Nonetheless, director Anthony Harvey opened up Goldman's play into authentic spaces far from any proscenium, and remained faithful to an energetic drama propelled by its performances and dialogue. Witty lines fly fast, one barbed rejoinder can topple kingdoms, and cleverness is any formidable foe's weapon of choice. The Broadway play was billed as "a comedy in two acts," and while there are sharp laughs in The Lion in Winter . . .

John: My God, if I went up in flames there's not a living soul who'd pee on me to put the fire out!
Richard: Let's strike a flint and see.

Henry: The day those stout hearts band together is the day that pigs get wings.
Eleanor: There'll be pork in the treetops come morning.

. . . at its heart this is a vicious medieval Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? where the personal really is the political and vice versa.

Hopkins was primarily a stage actor at the time, and it's interesting to see the future Hannibal Lecter so young and broody. Because Hopkins was appearing at the National Theatre in London, he needed Sir Lawrence Olivier's permission to take time off to shoot the film. Olivier agreed, provided that Hopkins shoot his scenes during the day, then fly back from Ireland, Wales and France for his evening stage performances in As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing.

Representing some of the critical dissent, Life magazine film critic Richard Schickel, who cared not a bit for the anachronistic modern-sounding dialogue placed into a 12th-century setting, staged a palace coup when the New York Film Critics Circle gave its Best Film Award to The Lion in Winter over John Cassavetes' Faces. Schickel and three others resigned in a huff, only to rejoin the following year. Lion is mannered and talky, granted, and brassily "classy" by today's standards. But Goldman's screenplay, which wisely does not aspire to be faux-Shakespeare, took the Academy Award.

Hepburn also walked away with the third of her four Oscars. Her Eleanor is every bit Henry's equal in brainpower, military cunning and verbal combat — a powerful figure in Women's Liberation 1968 and still one fine juicy role now. Hepburn also drew the best out of O'Toole, who became her devoted friend for life when she scolded him on the set for his self-destructive ways.

The Lion in Winter was up for the Best Picture Oscar, but it lost to, of all things, Oliver! (Talk about your off years. That was a tragic and blandly conservative win in the year that also delivered 2001: A Space Odyssey, Once Upon a Time in the West, Rosemary's Baby, The Producers and others better reflecting moviedom's seismic pop evolution.) John Barry, who gave us all that iconic James Bond music, handily won the statue for his moody, ecclesiastical score.

Further Oscar nominations included O'Toole's full-throated performance as Henry (O'Toole's second film portrayal of Henry II after Beckett), Anthony Harvey's directing and Best Costume Design. Add to the virtues on display here the location shooting in England, Wales and Ireland, and the scenic design recreating medieval England's dank, cold and desperate barbarism, the perfect setting for this otherwise thoroughly modern First Family.

MGM's The Lion in Winter DVD brings us a good transfer of a richly colorful print (anamorphic 2.35:1). There's a little speckling, but nothing serious. The Dolby Digital 2.0 monaural audio is crisp and strong. Anthony Harvey's audio commentary is dry yet informative and, after you give it a chance, reasonably engaging. Also here is the original theatrical trailer. The interview with Hopkins found on the previous Laserdisc edition is, alas, absent. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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