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No one else is carolling. It might as well be Lent.

The Lion in Winter

(SPOILERS) Depraved royals’ festivities. Of course, depraved royalty aren’t just for Christmas, and certainly not confined to the twelfth century. If you’re a fan of Succession, The Lion in Winter has basically the same plot, only with no central heating, an added matriarch and a penchant for sub-Shakespearian dialogue. It is also conspicuously unable to open out a theatre piece for the filmic realm. Naturally, The Lion in Winter was nominated for all the Oscars, but it rarely justifies itself as a piece of cinema in its own right.

The internecine scheming, feuding and machinations of this Christmas 1183 – official timeline, natch – gathering at the Chinon château of King Henry II (Peter O’Toole, playing older) include, variously, attempts by sons Richard (Anthony Hopkins), John (Nigel Terry) and Geoffrey (John Castle) to usurp their old man’s position on the throne, some of them in collusion with King Phillip II of France (Timothy Dalton), whose half-sister Alais (Jane Merrow) is Henry’s mistress but is supposed to become the wife of the future king; Philip wants the deal sealed or return her dowry. And then, there’s Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn), Henry’s missus and ex-wife of Phillip’s father (these royals, eh?), whom Henry barely sees all year. And now, when he does, he wants the marriage annulled so he can make with his floozy. She, meanwhile, wants to put Richard on the throne.

What this amounts to is a troop of thesps “delivering commercial near-poetry as if it were Shakespeare”, as Pauline Kael put it. And often, with James Goldman’s dialogue (adapting his own 1966 play), it’s grandly colloquial and or rudely on the nose; “It’s 1183, and we’re barbarians”; “There’ll be pork in the treetops come morning!

As one might expect, the cast respond to this challenge with a welter of ACTING! O’Toole, Hepburn, Hopkins and Terry are all really going for it. Which means Castle (who played Number 12 in The Prisoner episode The General the year before) probably comes off best; it helps that Geoffrey’s the most interesting of the sons, shrewd and calculating, thus requiring more reserve and less grandstanding on the actor’s part. Also very good is a very young Dalton (a mere 22 and very dashing), since he largely resists attempting to out-shouting everyone else. This was the feature debut for Terry, Dalton and Hopkins.

Kael’s review largely focussed on Hepburn and how her performance played off the perception of her legacy as an actress. I don’t really know about that. I mean, she won another Oscar for it, and she comes off better than most here simply by dint of avoiding one of the abominable fake beards afflicting nigh-on all her co-stars (at least, I don’t think she had a beard). It’s a very respectable performance, but neither she nor O’Toole are served terribly interesting character beats, something that embeds itself the longer we spend time with Henry and Eleanor, and as the plot moves from encounter to encounter and argument to argument, all variations on the same and gradually growing rather wearisome.

Hopkins is playing a stocky rage machine, and good with it, but this isn’t a role that uses him to his best effect (he’s always better suited to intelligence). Terry’s John is an object of grim ridicule, a “walking pustule” with “pimples and he smells of compost”. Accordingly, Terry’s doing his best Liam Gallagher impression throughout. Terry would trot this act out again as young Arthur in Excalibur more than a decade later.

A couple of scenes do stand out. When Henry locks his sons in the cellar, set on having away to see the Pope to get his marriage annulled, they are released by Eleanor, and they duly plot to stab him with the daggers she has brought. Earlier, a visit to Phillip’s room by first John and Geoff, then Richard, and then Henry, leads to bedroom farce played straight as the various parties hide out while the kings hold court (the absurdity is never really acknowledged, but it’s much dafter than when Hamlet did something similar).

This scene hones in on another aspect of note regarding Goldman’s take on royalty: that they’re a thoroughly depraved lot. This will come as no surprise to anyone currently regarding the worst conspirasphere accusations against the Windsors as entirely plausible, but it’s curious to see such behaviour addressed to so matter-of-factly in a mainstream production.

Early on, Henry reels off a list of his sexual endeavours, ones that include “contessas, milkmaids, courtesans and novices, whores Gypsies, jades…” And “little boys”. Joking or not, Eleanor also recounts her husband taking a sheep to bed. Richard sounds like he’d pretty much have had his way with Phillip regardless of his acquiescence (“Do you know why I told him ‘Yes’? So one day I could tell you all about it” Phillip advises Henry). None of this bunch are very nice people in any respect, though (Kael suggested that, on stage, they were the “jolliest collection of bad seeds since The Little Foxes”).

Unsurprisingly, then, there’s little time for Christmas cheer in this Yule mix. “What should I like for Christmas? I should like to see you suffer” ray of sunshine Alais tells Eleanor. “How, from where we started, did we ever reach this Christmas?” the latter opines to Henry.

If nothing else, The Lion in Winter seems to have fuelled many an anecdote. Hepburn was willing to take no nonsense from O’Toole, in his peak carousing period, and he seems to have behaved himself with her when he realised her mettle. Still, he was clearly regularly late on set, such that Hopkins, also in his boozy phase, would regularly mimic him before he arrived.

In terms of production, Anthony Harvey was helming his second feature. He was the first winner of the Directors Guild who failed to take home the Best Director Oscar also. I can’t say learning this was a stunner. There’s nothing very notable about his work here, although the photography is often exceedingly good, from Douglas Slocombe (a crime that he never won; either the previous year’s The Fearless Vampire Killers or later Raiders of the Lost Ark should have made him a shoe-in). They’re shooting “authentic” castle surrounds (ie, they’re the supreme forces in the land but feckin’ freezing at Crimbo). Harvey’s career was more noteworthy as an editor – for the Boulting Brothers, on Dr. Strangelove – than as a director (They Might Be Giants is his only other picture that would create a murmur of recognition now).

The ’60s was a good – or bad, depending on your view – period for feted, award-winning costume pieces with a medieval bent, pushing aside the Biblical epics of yore for (relatively) modern moralising. The Lion in Winter was thus very popular, which seems increasingly hard to fathom now (it was the year’s fourteenth most successful film at the US box office). Nominated for seven Oscars, it won three, the most deserved of which is undoubtedly John Barry’s rousing, pre-Omen choral score (it also took a BAFTA). Not very Christmassy, but then, that suits The Lion in Winter to a tee.

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