The Lion in Winter
at the Paris Cinema
THE LION IN WINTER is not a film; it's a filmed play. So was A Man For All Seasons, but there the adopted medium was at worst unobtrusive, and at best working dextrously for the fine script. The script of Lion in Winter rarely ventures outside the pretentious except to become ludicrous. And the film medium actually works against the script, making explicit the faults which, on a stage, could have remained vague.
As the advertising blurbs attest, The Lion in Winter has found great popularity in certain circles--the Ladies Home Journal calls it "The smash success." They must have found the film comforting, because it seems to show that even in the twelfth century Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine held Dear Abby attitudes. "I want the Aquitaine for John!" "I want it for Richard!" Nyaahnyaah. Like a medieval collection of Games People Play, but they play them so fast we lose track. Back and forth, one by one every character confronts every other and asks point-blank "Why didn't you love me?" And one by one, tediously, every character replies in the best spirit of medieval modern psychoanalysis. It's as if some Pinter couple, perverted, got its kicks from holding its quarrels in medieval costumes. "You led too many civil wars against me" chuckles Henry opening a beer. "And damn near won the last one!" quips Eleanor in her curler-cap.
Peter O'Toole fights hard, beneath padding and a gruff bark, and makes some of it work: "Oh God, I do love being King!" But John, the son he is supposed to love, love enough to risk kingdoms and wars, is portrayed as a slobbering cretin; their relationship, central in the film's setting of alliance and ambition, is implausible. Henry's mistress, his "true love," is played by high-bosomed but wooden Jane Merrow--another problem for O'Toole.
James Goldman, who adapted the screenplay from his own fairly successful Broadway script, must've had it in for Katharine Hepburn. She's forced through lines like "Of course he has a knife, we all have knives. It's 1183--we're barbarians." "Hush dear, mother's fighting." She makes it through such embarrassments by playing Katharine Hepburn, adding her wry little smile to some lines ("Well, what family doesn't have its ups and downs?") and telegraphing strong emotion by quivering.
The camera doesn't help the actors out of their predicament. This is the first major film in a long time with noticeably bad editing--too fast in the action scenes, too slow and repetitive during the interminable quarrels. The Panavision closeups are appealing, especially O'Toole's leonine face and downcast eyes, but there are far too many. Had the camera roamed somewhat it might've caught more of the period feeling, as in Welles' Chimes at Midnight. As it is, the few long shots are obtrusive reminders that we are outside the whole story--like a piece of scenery falling over in the middle of a play.
The Lion in Winter has some clever dialogue ("You're like a democratic drawbridge, going down for everyone"--"At my age, there isn't much traffic.") It occasionally has some clever shots (Henry II kicks aside dogs and chickens to formally greet the King of France.) It even has some clever acting. The problem is, the film has no purpose. A movie like this, a cultural spectacular, with respected stars, cleaning up Oscars as it no doubt will, ought to have some reason for being done. The Lion in Winter just brings to mind James Thurber's epigram: "The world is full of such a number of things, I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings--and you know how happy kings are."