Tuesday, August 24, 2010

#18. The Lion in Winter (1968) - Spotlight on England

Directed By: Anthony Harvey

Starring: Peter O'Toole, Katharine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins

Tag line: "The most significant reserved seat attraction of the year!"

Trivia:  Although Peter O'Toole plays the father of Anthony Hopkins, John Castle and Nigel Terry, he is only five, seven and thirteen years older than them respectively.

Mention Peter O’Toole, and I think King Henry II. 

Mention Katherine Hepburn, and I think Eleanor of Aquitaine. 

These two powerhouse performers managed 20 Academy Award nominations between them, and yet, for me, their work in The Lion in Winter stands above all others. 

The story is set in the days leading up to Christmas, 1183. England’s King Henry II (O’Toole) has decided to release his estranged wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Hepburn), from her castle prison in Salisbury (where she's been for the last 10 years for treason) so that she may be with him for the Holidays. 

Joining the "happy" couple for the festivities are their three surviving sons, Richard (Anthony Hopkins), Geoffrey (John Castle) and John (Nigel Terry). 

Holidays aside, Henry has another reason for bringing them all together; he must decide which of his sons will succeed him. Eleanor is pushing for Richard, while Henry has been priming young John for the crown. As old wounds are reopened and old arguments reignited, Henry and Eleanor hatch plot after plot against one another, and yet, through it all, realize there's still a spark that burns between them. 

Nearly every line of dialogue in The Lion in Winter is sharp and memorable. O’Toole, bellowing and abusive, gets the ball rolling early. “I’ve snapped and plotted my whole life”, he confesses at one point, adding, “There’s no other way to be a king, alive, and 50 all at once”. His Henry II is a strong man, perhaps even the perfect king, despite the fact he’s far from the perfect father, and farther still from the perfect husband. 

Soon after Hepburn’s Eleanor makes her grand entrance, the venomous tongues really start wagging. “How nice of you to let me out of jail”, she says with a sarcastic smile as Henry greets her. “It’s only for the Holidays”, he quickly reassures her. 

Hepburn matches O’Toole barb for barb and jab for jab throughout the entire film, never once backing down. “You’ve led too many civil wars against me”, Henry says to his wife shortly after her arrival. “I damn near won the last one”, the queen retorts with a grin and a giggle. 

These abrasive mannerisms didn’t even skip a generation, and are just as prevalent in their three sons: the angry and determined Richard, (played by Anthony Hopkins in his first major screen role); Geoffrey, the calculating middle child, and the arrogant but dim-witted John. All of Henry’s sons plot against him, each hoping to be his successor, yet despite the constant threat to his crown, Henry admits that he wouldn’t want it any other way. Having scratched and clawed for everything in life, Henry is happy to see his boys ready to do the same. 

The Lion in Winter is like a cauldron, spilling over with one marvelous performance after another, yet none as great as those delivered by the film’s two leads. As the bickering king and queen who made as much history as they saw, O’Toole and Hepburn are absolutely superb.

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