2004 production of The Lion in Winter brings James Goldman's
original play to the screen once again, only this time the small
screen with Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close in the principal roles
instead of Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn. Over the course of
its 167 minutes (divided into two parts), The Lion in Winter
showcases the bitter family rivalry surrounding the English throne in
1183. The aging king, Henry II, has brought his wife Eleanor out of
imprisonment and summoned his three sons to his court to celebrate
Christmas and put on a united front as he negotiates with the French
king. Ultimately at stake is the issue of who will be heir to the
throne: Eleanor's favorite, Richard, or Henry's favorite, John?
Especially with the third son, Geoffrey, stuck in the middle, there
are countless deceptions and reciprocated betrayals among all the
Lion in Winter has the seeds of a good story, and in Patrick
Stewart especially, some fine actors. He's a convincing king, one who
is capable of anything, and who can lie and deceive so skilfully that
it's never possible to know exactly what his true intentions are.
Glenn Close puts in a respectable showing as the exiled queen, but
her character is so shakily drawn in the script that there's a limit
to how much she can do. While King Henry's rapid shifts in behavior
toward one character or another are quite clearly part and parcel of
his scheme to get what he wants, Eleanor's behavior seems more simply
erratic, particularly since we have so little context for her
relationship with Henry.
be radical and suggest that the failing of The Lion in Winter
is not that it tries to update an older film, but rather that it
doesn't go nearly far enough in doing so. The costuming and sets are
impressively realistic, creating an extremely realistic atmosphere...
for what's still very clearly a stage play performed in front of the
camera. While a highly theatrical style isn't in itself a flaw,
neither is it a point in the film's favor: plays are the way they are
because of their nature, being performed live in front of a static
audience; when the constraints of location are removed, why continue
to behave as if they're still there?
upshot is that The Lion in Winter is a very talky film. Since
very little actually happens during the course of the film, with
somewhat of an exception in the confrontation between Henry and his
sons at the end, nearly all of what transpires in front of the camera
involves one or more characters talking to each other. Sometimes that
works quite well, as with the various scenes involving the
negotiations with the French king for support of one faction or
another. Most of the time, though, it's just tedious, as with the
interminable sparring between Eleanor and Henry, or between either of
them and any of their sons. If this were Shakespeare, it would work,
because we'd be captivated by the beautiful use of the language...
but screenwriter James Goldman is no Shakespeare. Not even close. His
dialogue is arch and self-conscious, clearly written not as what the
characters themselves would say, but as what the writer imagines is a
clever way of presenting things.
After this review was originally posted, a sharp-eyed reader brought
to my atttention that The Lion in Winter originally appeared
on Showtime in widescreen. That's right: athough it gives no
indication of this on the packaging, The Lion in Winter has
been pan-and-scanned from its original aspect ratio, as I was able to
confirm. I should have suspected as much from the numerous cramped
and badly framed shots in the 1.33:1 version, but at any rate the
truth is out now. It's a real shame (what were they thinking!) since
the film would have benefited greatly from the more expansive look of
a widescreen presentation.
The rest of the image quality is excellent, at least: apart from the
contrast being a bit too heavy in the darker scenes, everything looks
almost perfect. The picture is sharp and clear, with colors appearing
robust and natural-looking. If we weren't missing half the image,
it'd get four stars.
Two soundtrack options are provided: a Dolby 5.1 and a Dolby 2.0.
Since it's a mainly dialogue-centered film, there's not a whole lot
of difference between the two, but the 5.1 surround track does
provide a greater sense of depth and immersion than the 2.0. Overall,
the sound quality is quite satisfactory; the dialogue is occasionally
slightly muted, but it's generally clear and always natural-sounding.
The only special feature is a disappointing seven-minute "Behind
the Scenes" featurette, which is entirely promotional in nature,
and features numerous clips from the film interspersed with fairly
generic interviews with the main cast.
in all, The Lion in Winter is watchable, but at nearly three
hours, it overstays its welcome considerably. While the hints of a
delightfully Shakespearean tragicomedy are certainly present, when
push comes to shove The Lion in Winter just doesn't have what
it takes to sustain itself. Unfortunately, the fact that the film has
been pan-and-scanned from its original widescreen aspect ratio leads
me to bump it from "rent it" down to "skip it."