So Much More Entertaining Than Your Average Contemporary Political Power Struggle

Peter O'Toole, NYC, 1/12/07

Peter O’Toole, NYC, 1/12/07

Anthony Harvey’s multi-Oscar-winning second feature, “The Lion in Winter” (1968), soars with two great pros ferociously verbally duking it out about matters of love and royal succession.

It’s Christmastime, 1183, and King Henry II (Peter O’Toole), is home for the holidays at his pile of bricks (well, stone), at Chinon. Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn), his long-estranged wife (recently–and temporarily–released from her house arrest, which he had imposed) arrives over water with a retinue.

Henry and Eleanor, with aging faces still supported by legendary bone structure, and plummy accents (the non-Brit’s is the plummier), are joined by their three sons, mom’s favorite, Richard, not yet the Lion-Hearted (Anthony Hopkins in his film debut), dad’s sweetish simpleton, John (Nigel Terry, debuting too), and the other one, Geoffrey (John Castle). Also in residence in the cold, dark high-ceilinged rooms is Henry’s young French mistress, Alais (Jane Merrow). Her relative, an equally young King Philip of France (Timothy Dalton, yup, his debut), and his entourage, soon show up.

The film was shot by the great cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (who died this year at 103) and its fast-paced and supremely witty script (by James Goldman, based on his play), has Henry and Eleanor lacerate each other while their boys plot their own nasty bits of subterfuge. And then, as they say, the plots thickens (and thoroughly entertains for a 134-minute break from 2016’s political machinations), and is spiced up with startling revelations of a prior romantic idyll involving Richard and Philip, and of how Eleanor rid herself of her first husband.

And then the holiday break is over. The Plantagenet family, Alais, and Philip resume their lives, and as Bob Dylan has sung (although not about this situation), “Everything up to that point had been left unresolved.”

“The Lion in Winter,” in a new 4K restoration will open at Film Forum on Friday, December 16 and run through Tuesday, December 27.

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