Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas Movies: The Lion in Winter

[Merry Christmas, and, also, f--k it. I had problems accessing Netflix last night - and, earlier in the week, DJ was kind enough to offer up an Xmas movie review. Serendipity gives me a decent excuse to push my own holiday post to tomorrow, with a thousand thanks to a standup dude who manages to write through a schedule that's far more punishing than my own... I go now to keep resting, and spend time with my family.

Happy holidays ya'll...]

"Well! Shall we hang the holly, or each other?"

There are a lot of dramas about family dysfunction at the holidays. It's a common trope, mainly because the holidays are times when family members that may not spend the rest of the year in close proximity get together.

Most of these holiday dramas suck to one extent or another, because the stakes are pretty mundane. Will Mom and Dad's marriage break up over the pressure of the holidays? Will Dad come to terms with the revelation that son Billy is gay?

One cure for this banality is The Lion in Winter. Just like any other Christmas drama family, the Plantagenets are getting together to celebrate the holiday. Wife Eleanor has been separated from husband Henry, but they're reuniting for Christmas dinner with their three sons, Richard, John, and Geoffrey, and their cousins Philip and Alais. As in other movies of this type, there will be conflict and shocking revelations that threaten to tear the family apart, and family relations will be driven to the breaking point.

What makes this uncomfortable Christmas dinner different from the others is that the year is 1183, and the Plantagenets are the royal family of England. King Henry II (Peter O'Toole) and Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn) are separated because Eleanor is imprisoned--Henry's kept her locked up for a decade because she led three of their sons (Richard, Geoffrey, and the recently-deceased heir, Young Henry) to  revolt against him.

Of the three surviving sons, Henry favors their youngest, John, who's an oaf but was the only one of the boys who didn't follow his mother against his father. Richard (Anthony Hopkins, in his first big film role), the one who inherited Henry's prowess as a warrior, is the apple of Eleanor's eye. That leaves Prince Geoffrey the odd man out, a schemer hoping to play both sides for the benefit of the middle.

Meanwhile, cousin Philip (future James Bond Timothy Dalton) is the young King of France--what's left of France, at least, since Henry rules more than half of it. He's technically Henry's peer and rival, but he's starting out pretty far behind in the game, since his dad (Louis VII) got rolled by Henry.

Alais, Philip's sister, is promised to marry Richard, or maybe John, but Henry's been in no rush to schedule the wedding or identify the groom because he's far too pleased keeping Alais as his own mistress. Alais is treated as a piece of property, by the various men in her life. Here, Philip's more concerned about the return of her dowry (a piece of real estate called the Vexin) than he is about his sister:

This is the set up for an epic family drama. Of the seven main characters, six believe they should rule all they survey, whether by merit, temperament, birthright, or sheer sense of entitlement. We watch these characters circle each other, probing for weaknesses, making and dissolving alliances, each plotting a way to come out on top of the power struggle.  The stakes ratchet up appropriately--when Henry and Eleanor discuss the possible dissolution of their marriage, it isn't just something that could change their personal relationship, but her continued imprisonment, their sons' claim to the throne, and ownership the various lands these nobles swap among each other like so many Monopoly properties.  For anyone who doesn't appreciate O'Toole's greatness as an actor, The Lion in Winter is the movie I'd have them watch. He's completely believable as the 50-year-old monarch in decline (and remember, that's a medieval 50) even though he was in his mid-thirties when played the role. He was only five years older than his "son," Hopkins, but a refreshing 25 years junior to his leading lady, Hepburn. These days they'd probably spend millions adding CGI creases to his face to make him look older, but back in 1968 they just had him grow a full beard, gave him a little makeup, and had him act the part of a gristly, battle-hardened man. Hepburn, meanwhile, is sometimes a bit much for me. She's like Clint Eastwood as a movie star whose personal style is so distinct, they're always playing the same character: the whip-smart take charge woman who thinks the men are way too full of themselves. Still, Hepburn's persona and theatrical line readings work well for Eleanor, who is always putting on a performance for the benefit of whoever else is in the room. Hepburn's third Oscar (of four) is well-earned. (I love the direction of this scene. You have Hepburn with a big, fake, theatrical smile frozen on her face, which looks grotesque and absurd in cinematic closeup. Then at the end of the scene the director gives us a long shot so we can see the royals as their subjects see them--him all strutting confidence, her with a beaming smile that plays for the back of the room.) Another high point of the film is the setting, which may be the most deglamorized depiction of a medieval court ever. In one bravura scene, Henry stalks through the castle, rousing his servants and soldiers, most of whom are sleeping on straw mats on the floor. O'Toole travels in a cloud of dust, preceded and trailed by livestock and hunting dogs, who were sleeping alongside his servants. For anyone looking for a holiday family drama movie where there's the constant threat of the family members murdering each other, and problems can't be solved through simple invocation of the Christmas spirit, The Lion in Winter is great, nasty fun. Highest possible recommendation.

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