Watching these cinematic treats is nothing short of delicious. Since revenge is a dish best served cold, it seems appropriate that the grand dame of these films takes place in the bleak midwinter of 1183, when the royal family has gathered for the Christmas holidays.
The Lion in Winter (newly released on DVD) deftly sets the stage. Powerful monarch Henry II, ferociously embodied by Peter O'Toole, has decided it is nigh time to decide which of his three sons will become his successor. He favors his youngest son, John (pouty Nigel Terry) whom he loves with all his heart. However, his iron-willed wife Eleanor has other plans for the eldest son, Richard the Lionhearted (young and hot tempered Anthony Hopkins).
Since Eleanor is played by the magnificent, authoritative, and fiendishly clever Katharine Hepburn, the outcome will be a result of power, politics, and conflicting wills. Naturally, the allies shift and provide counterassaults. Stakes grow increasingly high as they play out their games until it no longer becomes a game at all.
Screenwriter James Goldman effortlessly translates his play to film, keeping the rich and intricate dialogue without sacrificing the wonderfully intense drama. It's easy to get lost in the shuffle of the costume-drama, feeling in over your head with political babble and those long, intricate names. All those bearded faces can start to blend together. The Lion in Winter remains uncluttered because it cares more for the layered, character driven subtext of its scenes than bogging down in unnecessary historic detail.
The element of royal intrigue, present and accounted for, takes a back seat to the emotional tug of war between Hepburn and O'Toole, where the issues of trust, love, and honor are at stake. Those issues become larger than their three squabbling, petty children -- and thus the film becomes more human. That's why this film is considered a classic, dwelling on the desire to thaw the human heart.
The cast is truly in top form. Hepburn and O'Toole play off of each other beautifully. Hopkins resembles Russell Crowe transformed into a raging bull, charging into every scene only to be cut short by Hepburn's wit. A serpentine Timothy Dalton co-stars as the child king of France, making one ponder why he never became a fine actor instead of the answer to a James Bond trivia question.
Released in 1968, The Lion in Winter doesn't feel dated. With twists and turns 'round every corner, it is every bit as modern, sexy, serpentine, and sharp witted as Elizabeth. While many place it upon a pedestal as a classic, it at least earns its proper place as a ripping good yarn.
The lion roars.
Run time: 134 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 30th October 1968
Distributed by: Nelson Entertainment
Production compaines: AVCO Embassy Pictures, Haworth Productions
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 90%
Fresh: 28 Rotten: 3
IMDB: 8.2 / 10
Director: Anthony Harvey
Producer: Martin Poll
Screenwriter: James Goldman
Starring: Peter O'Toole as Henry II, Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine, Anthony Hopkins as Richard, John Castle as Geoffrey, Nigel Terry as John, Timothy Dalton as Philip II, Jane Merrow as Alais, Nigel Stock as William Marshall, Kenneth Ives as Queen Eleanor's Guard, O. Z. Whitehead as Bishop of Durham
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