Skip to main content

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.

Popular posts from this blog

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

I said I had no family. I didn’t say I had an empty apartment.

The Apartment (1960) (SPOILERS) Billy Wilder’s romcom delivered the genre that rare Best Picture Oscar winner. Albeit, The Apartment amounts to a rather grim (now) PG-rated scenario, one rife with adultery, attempted suicide, prostitution of the soul and subjective thereof of the body. And yet, it’s also, finally, rather sweet, so salving the darker passages and evidencing the director’s expertly judged balancing act. Time Out ’s Tom Milne suggested the ending was a cop out (“ boy forgives girl and all’s well ”). But really, what other ending did the audience or central characters deserve?

Listen to the goddamn qualified scientists!

Don’t Look Up (2021) (SPOILERS) It’s testament to Don’t Look Up ’s “quality” that critics who would normally lap up this kind of liberal-causes messaging couldn’t find it within themselves to grant it a free pass. Adam McKay has attempted to refashion himself as a satirist since jettisoning former collaborator Will Ferrell, but as a Hollywood player and an inevitably socio-politically partisan one, he simply falls in line with the most obvious, fatuous propagandising.

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

Doctors make the worst patients.

Coma (1978) (SPOILERS) Michael Crichton’s sophomore big-screen feature, and by some distance his best. Perhaps it’s simply that this a milieu known to him, or perhaps it’s that it’s very much aligned to the there-and-now and present, but Coma , despite the occasional lapse in this adaptation of colleague Robin Cook’s novel, is an effective, creepy, resonant thriller and then some. Crichton knows his subject, and it shows – the picture is confident and verisimilitudinous in a way none of his other directorial efforts are – and his low-key – some might say clinical – approach pays dividends. You might also call it prescient, but that would be to suggest its subject matter wasn’t immediately relevant then too.

You ruined every suck-my-silky-ass thing!

The Matrix Resurrections (2021) (SPOILERS) Warner Bros has been here before. Déjà vu? What happens when you let a filmmaker do whatever they want? And I don’t mean in the manner of Netflix. No, in the sequel sense. You get a Gremlins 2: The New Batch (a classic, obviously, but not one that financially furthered a franchise). And conversely, when you simply cash in on a brand, consequences be damned? Exorcist II: The Heretic speaks for itself. So in the case of The Matrix Resurrections – not far from as meta as The New Batch , but much less irreverent – when Thomas “Tom” Anderson, designer of globally successful gaming trilogy The Matrix , is told “ Our beloved company, Warner Bros, has decided to make a sequel to the trilogy ” and it’s going ahead “with or without us”, you can be fairly sure this is the gospel. That Lana, now going it alone, decided it was better to “make the best of it” than let her baby be sullied. Of course, quite what that amounts to in the case of a movie(s) tha

You just threw a donut in the hot zone!

Den of Thieves (2018) (SPOILERS) I'd heard this was a shameless  Heat  rip-off, and the presence of Gerard Butler seemed to confirm it would be passable-at-best B-heist hokum, so maybe it was just middling expectations, even having heard how enthused certain pockets of the Internet were, but  Den of Thieves  is a surprisingly very satisfying entry in the genre. I can't even fault it for attempting to Keyser Soze the whole shebang at the last moment – add a head in a box and you have three 1995 classics in one movie – even if that particular conceit doesn’t quite come together.

It’s always possible to find a good moral reason for killing anybody.

The Assassination Bureau (1969) (SPOILERS) The Assassination Bureau ought to be a great movie. You can see its influence on those who either think it is a great movie, or want to produce something that fulfils its potential. Alan Moore and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen . The just-released (and just-flopped) The King’s Men . It inhabits a post-Avengers, self-consciously benign rehearsal of, and ambivalence towards, Empire manners and attitudes, something that could previously be seen that decade in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (and sequel Monte Carlo or Bust , also 1969), Adam Adamant Lives! , and even earlier with Kind Hearts and Coronets , whilst also feeding into that “Peacock Revolution” of Edwardian/Victorian fashion refurbishment. Unfortunately, though, it lacks the pop-stylistic savvy that made, say, The President’s Analyst so vivacious.

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

This guy’s armed with a hairdryer.

An Innocent Man (1989) (SPOILERS) Was it a chicken-and-egg thing with Tom Selleck and movies? Did he consistently end up in ropey pictures because other, bigger big-screen stars had first dibs on the good stuff? Or was it because he was a resolutely small-screen guy with limited range and zero good taste? Selleck had about half-a-dozen cinema outings during the 1980s, one of which, the very TV, very Touchstone Three Men and a Baby was a hit, but couldn’t be put wholly down to him. The final one was An Innocent Man , where he attempted to show some grit and mettle, as nice-guy Tom is framed and has to get tough to survive. Unfortunately, it’s another big-screen TV movie.