Sunday, February 19, 2012

A Play For The Big Screen: The Lion In Winter Leads To Another Razor Decision.

The Good: Great acting, Interesting characters
The Bad: Plot sacrificed for mood, Disturbing nature of the characters, Theatrical nature
The Basics: Despite mostly fine acting, a preponderance of despicable characters and lack of use of the film medium make The Lion In Winter a close call.

I happen to be a big fan of various media (books, television, music) and I think one of the things I enjoy about each medium is the strengths of it. I like how books use language to turn my mind over and over, allowing me to develop images and to learn, I like how great music resonates through my ears and into my bones and makes me feel. And I love how movies may make use of the visual medium to tell a story. Probably the reason I am not a fan of more old movies is because they are visually limited and present plays on film. I love theater, but theater is theater, movies are movies. The Lion In Winter is one of those old movies that illustrates well the problematic aspect of old films simply translating a play into a motion picture.

During the reign of Henry II, Christmastime comes to England and Henry and his estranged wife Eleanor are reunited for holiday festivities. Throughout the evening, their children, Geoffrey, Richard and John vie for political control of the country by scheming with one another and alone for their father's love and blessing. Henry has handpicked the loathsome youngest son, John, while Richard is blessed by Eleanor.

The Lion In Winter is that simple to describe because it does not have a lot in the way of plot. Not much happens. The movie is more about the machinations of royalty than about anything that actually happens. As a result, the intrigues are talked about in great depth, but the location is singularly defined as a castle in England on a single day and night. There is a lot to talk about, for these are cunning people, but little to see.

In fact, that works greatly to the film's detriment. Take, for example, a pivotal scene wherein all three sons end up in Richard's room. Richard and Henry talk - when Henry arrives - and he tries to convince the king that he is a worthy successor. As the conversation shifts and Richard exposes his brothers and he finds himself being exposed, there is an inorganic quality to the scene, much like what happens in a poor theatrical production. That is to say that the characters stop moving around the room with any sense or purpose or natural movement and instead stay still, as one does in a play when one hopes to keep the audiences' eyes on a single person and their attention on that person's monologue. People failing to move in normal, realistic ways, is always a problem.

Furthermore, some of the acting seems tenuous. Anthony Hopkins has a strange, reserved quality about him in the scenes he shares with Peter O'Toole. This comes across as less of a character flaw and more an acting inconsistency. Hopkins, as well as John Castle, seem quite deferential in the presence of O'Toole, a flaw they do not seem to possess with any other actor in the piece.

The real problem with the piece is there is not a single likable character in the bunch. Henry is having an affair and keeps his wife locked up in a distant castle, Eleanor is a ruthless extortionist, John is an annoying whelp, and Geoffrey uses his lack of parental love to justify conniving against everyone for power. This seems to be a study in characters of flaws, without any truly redeeming traits to any of them.

While it is perfectly possible to do a film wherein all of the characters have negative traits or are flat out evil (the brilliant criminal-laden mystery The Usual Suspects comes immediately to mind), there must be at least one character that the viewer is rooting for, someone we are interested in and are invested emotionally in. The Lion In Winter offers not a single empathetic character, making it very difficult to care. Indeed, with all of the plotting and scheming, this movie comes across as a two hour chess match where none of the players grab our hearts or our attention.

On the other hand, a real plus of The Lion In Winter is the acting. Peter O'Toole is amazing as Henry II (Peter O'Toole). His performance is loud and boisterous through much of the movie, which give Katharine Hepburn a lot to play off as Eleanor. Indeed, Hepburn masterfully contrasts O'Toole's forceful performance with a quieter, more sinister portrayal of Eleanor that works well. John Castle does an excellent job portraying Geoffrey as conflicted through his body language, while Anthony Hopkins uses subtle eye movement and very minor facial ticks to keep Richard a reserved, masked character.

Nigel Terry, who plays John, is the real winner of this movie. There is not a single scene in The Lion In Winter where John is present that the viewer does not completely hate him. While he is Henry's preference, he is whiny, annoying, petty and in every way a spoiled child. Terry plays him masterfully, infusing every line with a pathetic whimper and a disgusting air of loathsome sniveling. Terry, being nothing like that, proves himself to be a great actor through the performance.

Ultimately, the quality of the acting is not enough to save this movie, though it does come close. This was one of my few razor decisions, choices that could truly have gone either way. Being labeled a "classic" is not enough to push me over the edge. In the end, I could not recommend a film with such a lack of empathizable characters and had the look and feel like a theatrical play caught on film. For a better historical story of intrigue and passion, try Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet. If you like senseless plotting and conniving, though, maybe you should give this film a chance.

For other classic dramas, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
The Best Years Of Our Life
How Green Was My Valley


For other film reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2004 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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