July 3, 2009

The Lion in Winter (1968)
Grade: 43/100

Director: Anthony Harvey
Stars: Peter O'Toole, Katharine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins

What it's about. Set in England-occupied France in the year 1183. Aging English King Henry II (Peter O'Toole) holds a family reunion. He temporarily releases his wife Eleanor (Katharine Hepburn) from her gilded castle cage, and also brings together their three surviving sons: Richard (Anthony Hopkins, in his first big role), Geoffrey (John Castle), and John (Nigel Terry). For some reason, young King Philip of France (future James Bond Timothy Dalton) also attends the Christmas affair. Also present is Henry's mistress, Alais (Jane Merrow), who has been pledged since childhood to John.

With the exception of Alais, who is too nice and attractive for anyone to despise, none of these people trusts or likes any of the others. That doesn't keep them from plotting endlessly. The three sons each want to succeed their father as king. Hepburn wants to remain married, and covets a strip of French land called Aquitaine. Henry also wants this land, and he wants to keep his mistress and possibly even marry her. King Philip would presumably like to expel the English royalty, but he'll settle for showing up the mettlesome King Henry.

Henry is in a pickle because he doesn't have a reliable heir. Richard is a warrior but homosexual, Geoffrey is a soulless manipulator, and John is a sniveling coward. All three sons appear too willing to cut a deal with King Philip to attain the crown, even if it means losing France.

How others will see it. The Lion in Winter was critically hailed upon release, and it won three Oscars, including a Best Actress Academy Award for Hepburn. She had won the same award the previous year, a remarkable achievement for an actress decades past her prime. The fact that neither film was good (the other was Guess Who's Coming to Dinner) was overlooked by Academy members.

The film remains highly regarded today, especially by women over 45, who give it a whopping 8.9 out of 10 at imdb.com. Those under 18 are much less charitable (5.7 out of 10). One can only presume that they found the costume drama to be as tedious as I did.

How I felt about it. The stage origins of this movie are obvious. The screenplay is consumed with various conversations between two or more of the leads, most of which amount to insults, lies, accusations, and boasting. One actually longs for polite meaningless chatter, something like, "Do you think it will rain today?", or "I say, that Manchester Club just might go all the way this year." Instead we get snarky remarks like this one from Geoffrey to John, "If you're a prince, there's hope for every ape in Africa."

One also has to note that these people were incredible lucky to have been born into the Royal families of England or France. Instead of showing a glint of humility or gratitute at their good fortune, they instead are consumed with endless jealousy, rivalry, and intrigue.

Most outrageous of all is our hero from Lawrence of Arabia, Peter O'Toole. He bellows in practically every scene, and changes his mind more often than that. At first, John will succeed him. Then its Richard. Then John again. Then none of them. He's going to free his wife. No, he's going to divorce her. He's going to marry off Alais to one or another of his sons. No, he's going to keep her.

In the end, nothing happens, and all those pages of dialogue were just for show. This wouldn't be much of a problem if the screenplay sparkled. But it's all bogus dramatics. If you disliked someone powerful, would you endanger your situation to insult or threaten him? Most people would know better, but here relatives are saying the cruelest things imaginable to each other. It's amazing that they are all still alive.