A vintage classic: ‘The Lion In Winter’ on Blu-Ray

❉ A newly restored version of the Oscar winning historical drama, starring Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn and Anthony Hopkins, debuts on Blu-ray as part of the Vintage Classics collection.

England, the 12th Century. After the death of his son and heir, King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) is obsessed with finding a new successor, so summons his three remaining sons. Also summoned is his wife, the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katherine Hepburn), who he has kept imprisoned for the last ten years. As the Royal couple scheme and cajole with their sons, their passions turn from tenderness to fury as they try to determine who should be the future King of England.

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‘The Lion In Winter’ is a 1968 film adapted from a stage play about the later life of Henry II, played by Peter O’Toole – reprising the role of Henry; he played the younger King in ‘Becket’ (1964). Henry is the ruler of the Angevin Empire and founder of England’s Plantaganet Dynasty. Set in Christmas 1183 it concerns the issue of who out of his three surviving sons is to succeed him. The Imperious, battle-hardened Richard (played by Anthony Hopkins), the disgruntled, scheming middle brother Geoffrey (John Castle) or the petulant, spoilt youngest John (Nigel Terry). Henry invites his sons and takes his matriarchal wife Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katherine Hepburn) out of enforced imprisonment to spend Christmas at Chinon castle where everyone believes the matter will be settled once and for all.

Except of course it isn’t. Henry refuses to commit to a choice. Eleanor wants Richard to succeed Henry; Henry wants his youngest son John whom he dotes on. They all plot and scheme with each other, making promises, deals and betrayals behind Henry’s back especially with the young King of France Phillip (Timothy Dalton) who Henry has also invited to the castle. Tangled up in this is Henry’s current mistress Alais (Jane Merrow) Phillip’s sister. Henry accepted a dowry of a region of France from Phillip to marry Alais off to one of his sons but secretly wants to marry her himself.

Harvey’s direction is sparse but that is intentional and really gets across the desperation and drudgery of early medieval life. Even for those of royal blood.

The film directed by Anthony Harvey has been highly regarded and won several academy awards the following year including Best Actress for Katherine Hepburn, Best Adapted Screenplay for James Goldman and Best Original Music Score for John Barry. It was nominated for best picture and best director but lost out to ‘Oliver!’ and Carol Reed who directed Oliver! Anthony Harvey did win an Outstanding Achievement Award from the Directors Guild of America.

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The film itself, though it has a great supporting cast, is O’Toole’s and Hepburn’s. They have a great onscreen dynamic and seem to relish the snappy, well-written dialogue with its speeches and blistering one-liners. One moment they are screaming vituperation at each other, the next laughing at their situation or reminiscing over happier times. Hepburn’s performance is simply astounding. Eleanor who at this point is in her early sixties is played with fire and fierce energy, but often tinged with subtle sadness and fragility. O’Toole’s Henry has that same fire and energy but more often world weary, despondent even disappointed – particularly at his progeny. He comes across as older than Eleanor even though Henry is ten years her junior.

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Anthony Hopkins ably performs Richard as the entitled, confident young man whose strong bond with his mother has soured of late. John Castle’s Geoffrey, the middle son ignored by both his mother and father, is played as resentful and bitter and seeks to play the others off against each other. Nigel Terry’s John is a delight to watch, he gets across the petulance, “not quite as bright as his brothers” and youthful naivety of the teenage Prince.  Timothy Dalton (his first film role) is very good as the boy King desperate to not make the mistakes his father made. Nigel Stock is admirable as William Marshall and Jane Merrow’s Alais is the epitome of a medieval maiden, cruelly manipulated by Henry, Eleanor and her brother.

Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography is excellent with darkness and shadow interspersed with light almost like it is streaming through a stained glass window.

Harvey’s direction is sparse but that is intentional and really gets across the desperation and drudgery of early medieval life. Even for those of royal blood. There is no camera trickery or fast edits just long takes while the actors recite their lines and almost makes you feel like you are in a theatre watching a play. Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography is excellent with darkness and shadow interspersed with light almost like it is streaming through a stained glass window. With grubby sets full of straw, smoky tallow candles, chickens and barking dogs and most of the cast in plain functional costumes it all adds to the realism. King Arthur’s Court at Camelot this is not.

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The picture has been cleaned up very well going from the original film scenes they show in the extras and the sound in DTS makes John Barry’s great score even better. As for extras there isn’t many. There is a commentary by Harvey done in 2000 (probably for the DVD release) which offers some good insights into the making of the film and how the actors worked together. I loved how he remembered with fondness working with Katherine and what she was like on and off set. The commentary is worth checking out just for those stories alone. There are also interviews with John Castle, Anthony Hopkins and the editor John Bloom but the highlight is Peter O’Toole in an interview in 2012 where he talks about the special relationship he had with Katherine Hepburn.

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‘The Lion In Winter’ is one of the finest examples of those stage-play-to-film historical dramas that were popular in the 60s. While it may appear slow and talky to modern audiences it is anything but. There is very little action and only one very brief battle scene but the script and the performances of the main characters more than makes up for this.  If you want a masterclass in acting with legends of stage and screen then this film has it. It is also a damn fine entertaining film of a historical event that probably didn’t happen but that doesn’t really matter.

DVD & BLU-RAY EXTRAS
New interview with John Castle
New interview with John Bloom
Anthony Harvey audio commentary
O’Toole on Hepburn: 5 min excerpt from TCM interview in 2012
Trailer
Restoration comparison


❉ ‘The Lion in Winter’ was released on DVD, Blu-Ray and EST by Studio Canal on 3 October 2016, as part of the ‘Vintage Classics collection’ – showcasing iconic British films, all fully restored and featuring brand new extra content. RRP £14.99.

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