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The Lion In Winter
cast: Patrick Stewart, Glenn Close, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Andrew Howard, and John Light

director: Andrei Konchalovsky

167 minutes (12) 2003
widescreen ratio 16:9
Brightspark DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Jim Steel
Shall I compare thee to The Winter's Tale? Or, more pertinently, to Shakespeare's histories of the kings of England..? How about looking on it as a remake of the 1968 film? Or as an adaptation of the original Broadway play? And there is always the historical record, of course. This Christmas Plantagenet family gathering in Anjou never happened, but the core of the story has much basis in reality.

Henry II (Patrick Stewart) is one of the most successful kings of England to date. He controls most of the British Isles and much of France, and his kingdom is at peace. He has arranged to meet the new king of France, the 19-year-old Phillip II (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) at a summit, and has decided to bring along his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Glenn Close), for the sake of appearances. Eleanor, also formally married to Philip's father, has been subjected to house arrest since a failed rebellion a decade earlier in 1173, when she attempted to put her favourite son, the warlike Richard (Andrew Howard) on the English throne. Richard, it turns out, was a former lover of Phillip. Henry's favourite son is John (Rafe Spall), a self-pitying, spotty, fat coward who "smells of compost." What Henry sees in him is unfathomable, and it is one of the stumbling blocks in the film. The only possible explanation is that his failure to notice how John has turned out is intended to show how negligent Henry has been as a father. The third surviving son is Geoffrey (John Light), the clever one who has an almost psychopathic detachment and he is just as ambitious as the others for the throne. Into the mix is added Alais (Yuliya Vysotskaya), who is the sister of Philip. She is supposed to be betrothed to the successor to the throne, but Henry has taken her for his lover. This is history recast as soap opera.

The cast must be compared to the original film. Patrick Stewart has a reputation for handling Shakespearian parts but, in truth, this is largely because he has a fine ability to project his voice across a stage. He manages to shine in the company of lesser actors but his limits are obvious when playing meatier parts. Compare his Ahab to Gregory Peck's, for example. In this Lion In Winter remake he is up against Peter O'Toole (the 1968 film's star) who, on his day, was one of the finest screen actors of the 20th century. Stewart established a large fan-base playing the part of the ideal father in Star Trek: TNG, but his fatherly failure in Henry is, well, a failure. There is no edginess to him. Glenn Close, who also has previous with Shakespeare, comes across as terrifying... Eleanor was one of the greatest romantic heroines of medieval history, but you wouldn't guess it from this witchlike performance. Katharine Hepburn fitted the role much more comfortably. Curiously, the other main parts (with the glaring exception of John) hold up well against their 1968 competition and are even, in some cases, an improvement.

This version was made for television and had the luxury of being allowed an extra half-an-hour. It was originally split over two parts, and the unwary viewer will be caught off-guard when the credits roll halfway through the story. It's a clumsy and unnecessary piece of editing. Both films suffer from that stilted effect that occurs when a play is adapted rather too faithfully for the screen, but in other aspects it is James Goldman's ambition as a writer that unsettles it. There is little doubt that he intends it to fill a gap in Shakespeare's series of kings much in the way that one can slot Christopher Marlowe's Edward II into the sequence if one so desires. He even has Henry saying, "There is a legend of a King called Lear," when ruminating on difficult offspring, and, after all, John, Eleanor and Philip all turn up in Shakespeare's King John. Of course, Shakespeare peppered his plays with anachronisms, so it would hardly be fair to accuse Goldman of the same, and he shows much more historical fidelity than his predecessor ever did (his emphasis on the importance of Christmas to the medieval person, for example, is of no great importance). But it's a fight he cannot win. The great thing is that he tried. Eleanor's oft-quoted and ridiculed line (it's even used in the trailer, heaven help us) that "Of course he has a knife! We all have knives. It's 1183 and we are all barbarians," hides the fact that it is the launch pad for a beautifully crafted speech. There is some incredibly fine writing in here, and, despite Goldman's penchant for hiding his characters behind tapestries or sticking soliloquies into their mouths, this film is a very rewarding experience.
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