Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Lion in Winter (1968)

Take Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and slap some period costumes on it and you would have The Lion in Winter.

King Henry II (Peter O'Toole) is 50 years old (That's Golden Girls old in those days), and he needs to name his heir to the throne. He favors his youngest, favorite sog John who is essentially a spoiled idiot teenager. His wife Eleanor favors the oldest, the more bloodthirsty Richard (Anthony Hopkins in his first movie role). Unfortunately for Eleanor, she's been imprisoned for the last ten years and Henry will only take her out for special occasions. But fortunately for Eleanor, it's Christmas, so she's brought to the castle and begins to plot to get her favored son on the throne. In the middle of this is the middle son, Geoffey, a schemer just like his mother, Alais, Richard's betrothed, Henry's mistress, and half-sister of King Phillip, as well as the newly crowned King Phillip of France (Tomothy Dalton) who is there to discuss the dowry of his half-sister. The presence of Phillip creates an opportunity for the sons, whoever can get Phillip's favor could gain his military aid and take the crown from their father by force.

Anyone familiar with history (Or in my case, Disney's animated version of Robin Hood), knows who will eventually become king, but that's not really the point. The film is less about the plotting and scheming and more about the dynamics of this truly messed up family, the love and hate that ties everyone together in a tangled web spun by Eleanor.

Of course, the two leads are fantastic with Peter O'Toole conveying the world-weariness of a man who is beginning to outgrow his reign as well as the fire that helped him become king in the first place. And Katherine Hepburn (in her Oscar-winning performance) is astounding. The verbal barbs that she trades with Henry are soaked in acid and bitterness, but we never get that she is truly committed to this role of the vengeful shrew, instead using it to mask the hurt and pain at having been locked away from the family she both loves and despises.

The problem that some people will have with this film is how little comes of the plot, that we get to see all this scheming, conniving and backstabbing but nothing really comes of it. Instead it's more of a window into this family, seeing how they treat eachother and the bitterness and resentment that ties them all together. In that sense, it truly is like Virginia Woolf, it's a study of a relationship as opposed to a tightly plodded tale of castle intrigue, and the script is witty and often funny.

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