#31 — The Lion in Winter (Anthony Harvey, 1968)
There are few greatest pleasures in film than watching great actors–and I mean truly great actors–feast on wonderful words. In a way, that’s a counterintuitive statement, or at least one that bucks harshly against a more accepted conventional wisdom, one which venerates film as a visual medium, first and foremost. Happy as I am to celebrate the pristine, deeply considered imagery of the likes of Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick, even those directors reached their greatest heights in films that were equally beholden to language (the latter’s Days of Heaven, for example, may be endlessly included in clip reels for its sunset skies of fertile honey but the voiceover narration is an exceptional piece of writing). It’s especially advisable to look at a film like The Lion in Winter from a modern context; there’s no amount of dazzling special effects that can compare to the barrage of furious thespians unleashing an inspired verbal assault.
Adapted by James Goldman from his stage play of the same name, The Lion in Winter is about the castle intrigue that develops between King Henry II and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, concentrated on one Christmas celebration. The throne gamesmanship plays out with remarkably layered scheming, with different players doing their best to make sure their favored pathway to the future is secured. This was the second time in less than five years that Peter O’Toole played Henry II–the first was in Becket, released in 1964–and he is ideally suited to regal imperiousness, playing the monarch’s forcefulness with a full-throated vigor. O’Toole has a rare skill for making shouting seem like talking and vice-versa, which is perfect for the material.
For the film to be successful, O’Toole needed to be matched against someone equally formidable, and the filmmakers made an inspired casting choice with Katharine Hepburn. Recently moved into her sixties and still mourning the death of the love of his life, Spencer Tracy, many in the Hollywood community thought she was likely to retire. Instead, she burns intensely through this role, demonstrating with surprising gusto how her family mannerisms could be channeled into a character who–on the surface, anyway–seems well outside her usual range. Hepburn was reportedly impressed by the modern feel to the script, the way it avoided getting bogged down in the staid reserve more common to period pieces, then and now. She latches onto it, knowing that the key to accessibility for the audience is in the familiarity of the emotions, the vulnerability, the twinkle of inner strength.
Given the talents he could train his lens on (also including Anthony Hopkins in his first film role), director Anthony Harvey could have just pointed and shot and still wound up with a formidable film. In only his second outing–and there wouldn’t actually be that many more across a career that lasted into the mid-nineties–Harvey is instead shrewdly creative, finding methods to stage scenes that properly heighten the intrigue and add to the vitality of the film. The script seems a fairly faithful adaptation of the play, so it requires a charging energy to keep it from feeling overly stagebound, a quality Harvey infuses into it with crack timing. The implied descent of the title may be suited to the plight of certain characters, but it doesn’t characterize the film, which soars all the way.