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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Lion in Winter (2004)
The Lion in Winter (2004)
Lionsgate Home Entertainment // Unrated // July 20, 2004
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted August 22, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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The movie

Hallmark's 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 protagonists.

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.

I'll 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?

The 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.

The DVD

Video

Edit: 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.

Audio

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.

Extras

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.

Final thoughts

All 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."

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