If Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees were a medieval princess, she'd insist on a prenup before getting involved with any of Henry II's messed-up sons.
"It's 1183 and we're barbarians. How clear we make it!"—Eleanor of Aquitaine (Glenn Close)
Every time word goes out that another classic film is going to be remade, a general howl goes up. I myself am often one of the howlers, but when I heard that a remake of the 1968 classic The Lion in Winter was in the works, for once I was more optimistic. As much as I love the original, I believe it offers room for improvement. Perhaps, I thought, a remake would hew more closely to James Goldman's original stage play or would correct some of the casting and directing weaknesses in the original film. Now it's time to assess the new version and judge whether it was worth the making.
Facts of the Case
The year is 1183, and the aging but still powerful Henry II of England (Patrick Stewart, X2) decides to hold a Christmas court at the castle of Chinon to settle the question of succession. For years he and his brilliant but estranged wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Glenn Close, Dangerous Liaisons), have been battling (often literally) to determine which of their surviving sons will inherit the crown. Indeed, after Eleanor's last attempt at seizing Henry's property ten years ago, Henry has kept her imprisoned. Henry's choice of heir is the unlikely John (Rafe Spall), a lumpish, sulky teenager whose loyalty Henry does not question. Eleanor has always loved Richard (Andrew Howard, Band of Brothers) best, and she has molded him from an early age to be the next king. Middle son Geoffrey (John Light) is the one both parents tend to leave out of the equation, but they would do well not to ignore this calculating, ambitious young man.
Determined to end the squabbling and the uprisings, Henry sends for Eleanor so that she will be present when he and the young French king, Philip (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Titus), settle another matter: the ownership of a valuable piece of land called the Vexin. The king's lovely sister Alais (Julia Vysotsky) brought the property to England as a dowry—but instead of becoming Richard's bride, as was intended, she became Henry's mistress. Now Philip is demanding that the marriage take place or that Henry give the Vexin back to France. The trouble is that Henry and Alais truly love each other.but that doesn't stop Henry from using her in his calculations, especially when he sees that Alais can be used as a weapon against Eleanor. It's going to be a Christmas to remember—for those who survive.
The first question many people will bring to this film is "why?" That is, why remake an acknowledged screen classic? The lure of James Goldman's play may be one answer. With such rich source material, one can understand why today's actors would itch to have a chance to recreate these roles.
First of all, Goldman knows that the only thing more fun than a dysfunctional family reunion at Christmas is a dysfunctional royal family reunion at Christmas. His screenplay, based on his original stage play, presents for our delectation all the machinations, jealousies, grudges, and passions that often accumulate in large families and heightens the tension by raising the stakes. The people we see in The Lion in Winter aren't merely squabbling spouses and jealous siblings: They are the rulers, actual and potential, of a significant chunk of the civilized world. The fact that they still cast up old grievances to each other, like Henry's extramarital flings and Eleanor's first husband, makes them both familiar and real. We may not be able to sympathize with the problem of keeping a piece of strategically located land in case we need to gather troops there, but we can certainly identify with the sibling rivalry and the tension with in-laws. With such a situation as this, it's no wonder that The Lion in Winter is an enduringly popular play and inspired another film adaptation.
The other standout quality of Goldman's play is his dialogue—witty, scathing, ironic, idiosyncratic, it makes no attempt to replicate medieval speech but blithely bandies anachronisms. These characters may not sound like our idea of medieval folk, but they have their own distinct poetry: They know how to use words as another form of warfare, and the result is bracing and powerful. Think All About Eve in chain mail and you'll get an idea of the felicitous, astringent quality of the wordplay here. The byplay between Henry and Eleanor, in particular, scorches: As husband and wife, they know all of each other's weaknesses and are ruthless in playing off them, yet there's a fundamental respect—and even affection—for each other that lends a bittersweet quality to their verbal swordplay. This couple is the heart of the play and film. although it's a heart that has been bruised, if not broken, and has almost shriveled up.
In the original film, these two roles were memorably embodied by Katharine Hepburn, who won a richly deserved Oscar as Eleanor, and Peter O'Toole, whose performance I find to be akin to a bull in a china shop. O'Toole was a powerful presence but, to my sense at least, seemed to have no sensitivity to the dialogue, wielding it like a sledgehammer instead of a rapier. Thus, I was overjoyed that Patrick Stewart would be recreating this role, and indeed he is marvelous. Stewart can bellow as well as O'Toole when bellowing is called for, but he shows a lightness of touch, a sly dexterity with the dialogue, that his predecessor did not. This is the Henry the script creates in our mind's eye: Ironic, perceptive, with a sense of humor and even a twinkle in his eye. When Stewart's Henry gloats, "God, but I love being king!" we believe in his glee. I cannot imagine a better casting choice than Stewart for this role; his performance is not to be missed.
Just as magnificently cast is Glenn Close as Eleanor. Close has a daunting task before her in taking Hepburn's place, of course, and in one of her early line readings I was dismayed when she seemed to be mimicking Hepburn. Fortunately, this impression quickly faded, and Close makes the role her own, delivering a beautifully nuanced and utterly convincing portrait of this powerful, brilliant woman. Regal and charismatic, she commands instant respect, as such a legendary queen should. Yet she can still get down and dirty and hurl the nastiest barbs at Henry behind closed doors—and then immediately display a wry self-knowledge that shows us vulnerability beneath the venom. Close and Stewart are perfectly matched: We sense their appreciation for each other as both characters and actors, and this makes their intellectual byplay and plotting all the more fascinating. The role of Eleanor may be forever linked in people's minds with Hepburn, but that is no fault of Close's; she delivers an outstanding and memorable performance.
Indeed, one reason that the original film will continue to be the standard by which this version is measured is that this remake copies a great deal from it. Instead of returning to the stage play, this version chooses to employ the screenplay from the 1968 film. It does offer a different prologue, and the longer running time seems to indicate that a bit of material from the play was restored, but by and large the screenplay is the same—down to particular bits of blocking and movement, like Henry's breaking the ice in his washing bowl and Eleanor's standing with outstretched hand as her barge pulls away. Director Andrei Konchalovsky may be paying homage to the earlier film, or he may be afraid to tinker with some of its archetypal images; it's difficult to say. However, not all of the changes work, either. The new prologue, in which we see Eleanor, Richard, and Geoffrey's 1173 uprising against Henry, is handicapped by flabby, non-Goldman dialogue. Also, once the action proper begins and we are thrust into preparations for the Christmas court, Konchalovsky makes things too busy: Characters dash about endlessly, and the camera won't sit still. Instead of conveying energy, it just seems jittery. Fortunately, things start to settle down after Eleanor arrives so that we can revel in the acting and dialogue without all the distracting motion. And one of the new additions is masterly: The prologue scene in which Eleanor arrives at her prison is all the more eloquent in conveying her queenly command because there is almost no dialogue. Thus, you may chafe at the first twenty or thirty minutes, but if you keep watching your patience will be rewarded.
Of course, the specter of the first film can't help but affect one's reaction to the supporting characters, especially Richard and Philip, established so memorably by Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton, respectively. It took some time for both these characters to grow on me in the new film. Andrew Howard as Richard is hindered by a showily directed entrance at Chinon that makes him look more ridiculous than heroic, but over time I warmed to him: He has the combination of physical strength and haunted eyes that makes him convincing as both warrior and poet, and he carries off the more emotional scenes well. Likewise, at first I found Rhys-Meyers's Philip to be no more than a snippy little pretty-boy without the charisma or screen presence Dalton displayed in the role, but he, too, developed nicely, eventually emerging as a chillingly ruthless conniver fully capable of taking on the great Henry. On the other hand, Vysotsky's Alais comes across as more petulant than desperate, which is unfortunate, but the screenplay does the character no favors by drastically cutting her role down from the original play. Moreover, although Vysotsky has the right delicate beauty for the role, her heavy accent impedes her delivery of dialogue.
Fortunately, some of the supporting cast is spot on and even perhaps improves on that in the 1968 film. John Light is ideal as Geoffrey, all calculating eyes and wolfish smile; he's very much at home with the cut-and-thrust of political and familial warfare. And the real joy of the cast, besides the two leads, is Rafe Spall as John. Clumsy, peevish, homely, and slow-witted (except where his own welfare is concerned), John is utterly ill suited for politics; he's like a hippopotamus among greyhounds. Spall captures John's self-pitying ineptitude perfectly and provides some of the biggest laughs of the film.
The look of the film is attractive, bathed in the pale, pearl-grey light of a winter morning; indeed, the production design takes the "winter" of the film's title seriously, showing us lots of snow-covered landscapes. The lavishness shown in the location filming, the number of costume changes, and the swarms of extras goes a long way toward overcoming the small-screen origin of the production. Both exteriors and interiors evoke a solid sense of authenticity (if one overlooks the deliberate anachronisms of the Christmas decorations). Because of this attention to visual detail, it's a bit mystifying that the filmmakers chose to use the 1.33:1 aspect ratio instead of employing widescreen. However, the film would lack theatrical impact in any aspect ratio due to the wispy musical score, which aspires to grandeur but achieves no more than perkiness; its ill-judged buoyancy undercuts a lot of the dramatic tension.
Audio is provided in both stereo and 5.1 surround, and although surround is hardly vital for such a dialogue-driven story (and such a flimsy musical score), it does enhance the echoey vastness of Spissky Castle (standing in for Chinon) and brings hair-raising immediacy to the sound of swords being drawn. The video transfer, as one would expect from a brand-new program, is clean and free of obvious defect; the recurring haziness seems to be a deliberate lighting choice rather than a weakness in the transfer. Alas, the only extra is a brief behind-the-scenes featurette. At less than seven minutes long, it still manages to include interview footage of most of the major players, but it left me hungry to know more. It also coyly avoids mentioning that Vysotsky is the wife of director Konchalovsky, a little morsel of trivia that could have explained why Alais is cast least effectively of all the characters.
Viewers who managed not to see the 1968 film are probably feeling a bit peevish by now at my insistence on judging the film in comparison to its predecessor. If we take this Lion in Winter on its own, it is an enjoyable, and engrossing experience despite its uneven opening scenes. It features some masterful performances, and its screenplay could scarcely be bettered. Viewers who enjoy historical pageantry and (especially) ferociously witty dialogue should definitely plan on a rental at least.
If I can't quite rank this among the truly excellent made-for-television movies, it may be in part because of my own history as a viewer. But I can definitely exonerate this remake of the charge of being unnecessary. Giving Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close the opportunity to play these roles is reason enough to mount an entire film, as far as I'm concerned.
The defendant is declared not guilty, but the court sentences director Konchalovsky to probation until he learns that a copycat is not the same as a lion.
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• "The Lion in Winter: Behind the Scenes" Featurette
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