The Lion in Winter: 50th Anniversary Edition

Studio: Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Mar 20, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

For audiences used to the blood, sex and dragons that have become part and parcel of today’s historical dramas, the simple pageantry and stagey presentation of the costume dramas of yesteryear may seem quaint, even dull. Those people have probably never seen The Lion in Winter, a drama of medieval politicking that plays out via the implosion of one deeply dysfunctional family. Imagine Game of Thrones if there were no magic and every character was a Littlefinger-level schemer.

Adapted by James Goldman from his own Broadway play - itself based on actual historical events - The Lion in Winter takes place during the week surrounding Christmas in the year 1183. Henry II, the king of England, is spending the holiday in the castle at Chinon, in the Angevin Empire in France. At the ripe old age of fifty - conveyed very believably by a then thirty-five year old Peter O’Toole - Henry must decide which of his three sons will inherit his kingdom. Henry favors his youngest son John, but his wife Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, favors the eldest son, Richard. Of course, Eleanor has good reason to throw a wrench in Henry’s plans; he’s kept her imprisoned for the past decade after she led a civil war against him. Also present is their middle son Geoffrey, the newly crowned King Phillip II of France, and Phillip’s half-sister Alais, who is ostensibly supposed to marry one of Henry’s sons but is carrying on an open affair with the King himself. Something something your family holidays were rough.

Although it’s a political family drama, The Lion in Winter could initially be mistaken for a horror film. It opens with eerie religious chanting over shots of the stone faces decorating the walls of the castle, worn and misshapen like the souls of the characters they’re meant to represent. Director Anthony Harvey mostly gets out of his own way here - although there’s no lack of dated 70’s zooms - keeping mostly to wide shots befitting a stage adaptation, as well as intense close-ups of his sweaty, scheming cast. And what a cast it is. The Lion in Winter mostly exists to service the dueling tour de forces that are Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn’s performances. As a couple whose decades of hatred have curdled into a game of chummy one-upmanship, the two acting titans spend the entire film pitting their sons against each other and trading barbs so witty and cutting that it feels like the script was etched in acid rather than written in ink. Their intense love/hate relationship threatens to tip into camp at numerous turns, but Hepburn - in the role that won her her fourth and final Oscar - and O’Toole - playing the fading but still fierce version of the young king he played just four years earlier in Beckett - have total command of the screen when they’re apart and electric chemistry when they’re together.  

The rest of the cast is a who’s who of before-they-were-famous British actors. Nigel Terry - who would go on to star as King Arthur in John Boorman’s Excalibur - plays John as a sniveling, whiny teenager, exactly the kind of punk that could believably grow up to become the vain tyrant of the Robin Hood legends. A startlingly young Anthony Hopkins is cast against his future type as Richard, a violent, humorless brute, and an interesting take on a character that has enjoyed many favorable pop culture depictions as a hero of the Third Crusade. Also on hand is a baby-faced Timothy Dalton as the scheming King Phillip of France. The romantic subplot between Richard and Phillip is shockingly matter of fact for a film that was nominated for seven Academy Awards back in 1968.

The 50th anniversary Blu-ray edition of The Lion in Winter features a 4K remaster of the film that lets you see every drop of sweat on O’Toole’s brow and every hard-earned crease in Hepburn’s still gorgeous face, as well as a commentary track by director Anthony Harvey and an interview with sound recordist Simon Kaye. It’s well worth a look for fans of great acting, sharp dialogue and backstabbing.  



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