The Lion in Winter

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

03 September

Richard I of England crowned at Westminster, 1189

On this day in 1189 one of the most famous English kings was crowned in Westminster Abbey in London. Known as the Lionheart, because of his great courage in battle, he is often viewed romantically, especially if seen through the prism of the Robin Hood stories, in which his half brother John always gets the bad guy role and Richard is the paragon of virtue. Richard spoke French, not English (he was also the Duke of Normandy, Aquitaine, Nantes, Anjou, Gascony and so on – the idea of monarchy and nation being coterminous is something Richard wouldn’t have understood), he spent only six months of his reign in England, and while there initiated a great pogrom against the Jews. After which, ironically, he headed off on the Third Crusade to expel Saladin the Muslim from Jerusalem. No lover of England – “I would have sold London if I could find a buyer” – he was reputed to have had a homosexual affair with Philip II of France. Not quite the figure you meet in the movies then.

The Lion in Winter (1968, dir: Anthony Harvey)

This was only director Anthony Harvey’s second film, after a career as an editor (for Kubrick on Lolita and Dr Strangelove, among others). And what a theatrical beast it is – a literate costume drama focusing on 50-year-old Henry II’s decision-making over who was to succeed him. The candidates are oldest but faintly idiot son John (Nigel Terry), warlike Richard (Anthony Hopkins) and gentle Geoffrey (John Castle). To oil the wheels he’s released his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn), from house arrest where she’s been languishing for ten years – he’s that kind of a guy. Meanwhile Philip II of France (Timothy Dalton) is complicating matters, wondering just which of the three lads is going to become king, so he can strategically marry his sister off to the lucky winner. But never mind the plot, look at those names. I forgot to mention that it’s Peter O’Toole playing Henry II, putting in a burning, intelligent performance that should have won him an Oscar (Hepburn did win one). Adding further heft is John Barry’s typically plaintive score (medieval 007 – it’s fantastic) and the cinematography is by Douglas Slocombe (everything from the Lavender Hill Mob and The Italian Job to Raiders of the Lost Ark).

Why Watch?

  • Hopkins, Hepburn, O’Toole – enough said
  • Like A Man for All Seasons, an unapologetically stagy drama
  • A rare example of a costume drama with great box office
  • Epic on almost every level

The Lion in Winter – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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