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The Lion in Winter (1968)

by on 2011/12/27

“I’ve tried feeling pity for you, but it keeps on turning into something else.”

* * *

Historical dramas — fictional or otherwise — are not exactly my passion. In August, when I turned my attention to motion picture touchstones, Gone with the Wind was quickly dropped from the running. Similarly, Lawrence of Arabia and Titanic fell away. Lion in Winter nearly met the same fate this Christmastime, but it had particular points to recommend it: it’s timely, if not especially festive; it boasts a John Barry score; it marks the feature debuts of Anthony Hopkins (Legends of the Fall) and Timothy Dalton (James Bond).

Set in 1183 AD, the members of England’s royal family are in dysfunctional disarray. Three sons (Hopkins, John Castle, and Nigel Terry) compete to succeed their father Henry (Peter O’Toole), who tries to choose between them. Their estranged mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Desk Set’s Katharine Hepburn) gets involved in the struggle, while King Philip of France (Dalton) sows discord and looks on with bemusement.

As presented here, the movie serves only to reach a wider (or different) audience than the play upon which it’s based. It takes little advantage of the medium’s conventions. For every step forward, there is least one back. For example, the widescreen cinematography is beautiful, breathtaking in a handful of shots, and yet its impact is diminished by questionable choices: broken axes, clumsy zooms, extreme close-ups, jump cuts, and seemingly random edits. Action scenes are exceedingly poor, and inadvertently laughable, with a climactic fight between guards among the worst ever seen. It simply doesn’t do the “big screen” stuff as well as it does the script.

However, for all the screenplay’s neat turns of phrase, it was nonetheless painfully talky, and would have been so even at half its duration. It feels it will never end, with little sense of progression given the broad stroke declarations and inevitable recanting. Within the realm of discourse, it’s a texture composed of all peaks. The characters’ command of polite English language only enhances their vitriol, as aging desperation tires of holding back more childish whims. They are, to a one, well-spoken emotional cripples.

My screening notes are packed with words like aggression, contempt, hostility, loathing, machination, manipulation, politics, sniping, and venom. Characters are inconsistent, alternately gulled and suspicious, petty sadists one and all who say anything (true or not) to provoke a reaction. They’re political vipers feasting upon themselves. If you value honesty, their intercourse will frustrate and exhaust you, not for any complexity, but unending wild mood swings.

Which is true of the experience overall, with its constant whiplash entropy. Without historical accuracy, the appeal of Lion in Winter falls to entertainment, but I didn’t find it entertaining, just impressive in minor ways . . . and still too few to make this viewing more than academic utility.

Sorry, period drama, you’ve done yourself no favours today.

* * *

Rated PG

135 minutes

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