|'Like a feature-length episode of House Of Cards set in 12th Century Europe'.|
During the opening scene of The Lion In Winter, Henry II (Peter O'Toole) compares his own position as an ageing king nearing the end of his reign with that of Shakespeare's King Lear. It's an allusion undoubtedly included by screenwriter James Goldman to draw parallels between the Bard's treatment of British history and his own, and an almost impossibly lofty position to take so early on in his script, but one which Goldman actually manages to pull of far more often than not. Whilst The Lion In Winter lacks the poetry of Shakespearean history, it consistently achieves similar dramatic heights; superbly adapting his own Broadway play for the big screen, what Goldman emulates so successfully from Shakespeare is the ability to bring to life both the political manoeuvring and human drama from his chosen period.
Set in France during Christmas 1183, Goldman essentially presents a grippingly tense family get-together. "What family doesn't have its ups and downs?", muses Eleanor of Aquitane (Katharine Hepburn) to herself at one point. The family in question may be royal, but the drama which unfolds between them is universal: Eleanor and her husband Henry recall waging civil war against each other in the same way as a married couple might cuttingly bring up past infidelities, a subject which also regularly comes up between the two.
The script is consistently razor sharp and littered with wry humour, paranoid politicising and fevered emotion, making The Lion In Winter feel like a feature-length episode of House Of Cards set in 12th Century Europe. The rapid scheming and counterscheming between husband and wife, parent and progeny, brother and brother can at times be a struggle to keep up with; but tracking every single machination is always of secondary importance to taking in the brilliantly realised relationships between the players.
Anthony Harvey's direction consistently matches the craft of Goldman's script, successfully making Henry's French chateau feel both epic and intimate. The cast too overflows with exceptional talent, including the cinematic debuts of both Timothy Dalton and Anthony Hopkins as Philip II of France and the future Richard the Lionheart respectively. Both superbly showcase their Shakespearean theatricality, as well as offering ample evidence of the celebrated careers they would go on to enjoy on screen.
There's not a single performance here which is less than excellent, but there's never any doubt that this is O'Toole and Hepburn's film from the first moment they share on screen. Henry and Eleanor live to plot against each other, whilst also clearly still being deeply and irrestably in love with one another despite everything they have put the other through. It's a paradoxical relationship, the complexity of which could have proven the downfall of Harvey's film, but which O'Toole and Hepburn deliver in soaring, effortless fashion.
The Lion In Winter was released on UK Blu-ray and DVD on Monday 17th October.