The Lion In Winter could not exactly be described as a family drama. The thing is though, that while based in a medieval setting, the film resonates with modern family values. From the baffled, curmudgeonly middle child who is desperate for the attention of one parent, to the in-laws who are determined to make their presence known in a home that is ostensibly alien territory to them, right up to the squabbling parents who torture each other in an effort to make their feelings known, The Lion In Winter is as pointed as any lo-fi Wes Anderson feature that peers into the wholesome family values that society teaches us to uphold but never question.
But unlike The Royal Tenenbaums, The Lion In Winter is a genuine exploration of family values cloaked behind an armed castle, painted against the backdrop of a snow-laden Wicklow. The film stars a boisterous Irishman as the vibrant king of England, but it’s the ensemble cast that brings pathos to a film that could easily have been written off as a luxurious, overpriced episode of Ivanhoe.
Based on the 1966 play of the same name, the film lays the characters out like the Chess pieces they are supposed to represent, pre-empting the next move their opponent is bound to take. After being persuaded to challenge his father, Richard (played with smouldering poise by Anthony Hopkins) entrusts the service of the unnaturally handsome Philip II (a fresh-faced Timothy Dalton, in his film debut) in an effort to take over the crown.
Unbeknownst to Richard, his brothers John and Geoffrey (Nigel Terry and John Castle) are also planning a coup, in the hope that one of them can take over from Henry II (Peter O’Toole), now facing 50. The king seems more interested in a young princess, Alais (Jane Merrow) than he is in devising the land to the next heir, which is why his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn, who deservedly walked away with an Oscar for her performance) senses that this is the perfect time to take the crown away from him.
The Lion In Winter is a devastating portrait of a family at their most despondent and dysfunctional, as love has left the group for something more materialistic, and at its core comes a collection of powerhouse performances: O’ Toole is outstanding here, bellowing orders from the bottom of his gut as he comes to realise the price his role as a father has impinged on his leadership, yet it’s Hepburn who is the backbone of the film, as a Queen trapped by her gender, age and role in a land dictated by men. Exhibiting presence and passion, Hepburn turns the script on its head, demonstrating an eagerness for the impending mutiny (she pulls the strings from behind the shadows, while O’Toole spends much of the film shouting from the rafters), which deftly avoids the tried and tested routine of appearing disingenuous in Eleanor’s attempts to make herself known to the characters and the audience.
The acting is stellar, bolstered by John Barry’s storming score, embellishing the backdrop with horns, drums and strings, demonstrating a fire and fury that matches the essence of the story. Dalton was deeply moved by the score, and in 2011, he provided a reading at a memorial for the late composer. Barry’s final James Bond film, incidentally, was also Dalton’s first: The Living Daylights.
The pacing is measured, and although there are florid interpolations – Leinster has rarely looked this gorgeous on the big screen – director Anthony Harvey is clever enough to let the screenplay sing through, which suits the actors, all of them classically trained. In one almost tantric moment, the seven actors line up to wed off Richard and Alais, in a last-ditch effort to make the parents look respectable. From that moment, paranoia kicks in, and the actors tear into each other, dismantling the tapestry the court is supposed to uphold.
Here, in only his second film, Harvey proves his credentials with the stalwarts and the up and comers, crafting a tale of great passion, romance, greed and dishonesty that showcases the talents of the actors in question. Dalton is brooding, Hopkins is cerebral, Merrow is wistful, Hepburn…Hepburn’s just magnificent.
She provides the sorrowful, soul-searching portrait of a mother in the midst of great change, blaming herself for the failings of her marriage while admonishing the structures of the establishment that reveres and admonishes women in equal measure. In a search for equality, Hepburn proves her humanity in the role of fatigued monarch, doomed to repeat the same patterns Christmas after Christmas, year after year. “What family doesn’t have its ups and downs,” she sighs, the doomed irony wading over her. A probing, psychological look into the family structure, the film stands as a towering achievement of analytical, even Andersonesque cinema.