A glorious, brand-new 4K remaster and two strong lossless soundtracks distinguish Kino's 50th anniversary edition of The Lion in Winter, which remains just as riveting today as it was upon its initial release in 1968. With an intoxicating mixture of comedy and drama, director Anthony Harvey's atmospheric adaptation of James Goldman's Broadway play examines the intricate dynamics of King Henry II’s family during one memorable Christmas in 1183. Peter O'Toole, Katharine Hepburn (in an Oscar-winning portrayal), and Anthony Hopkins all shine in this intimate look at a colorful royal clan that comes Highly Recommended.
“What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”
Royal families may live in opulent palaces, exude an air of rarefied sophistication, wield considerable power, and command enormous respect, but deep down they’re just people...and they’re riddled with all the same faults and insecurities that plague the rest of us. That’s the idea playwright James Goldman strives to convey in his captivating domestic comedy, The Lion in Winter, which bitingly chronicles a fraught family Christmas filled with all the bickering, rivalries, power plays, hurt feelings, tender moments, and rueful recriminations to which all of us can all too well relate. The only difference is King Henry II of England (Peter O’Toole) and his estranged wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn) preside over this particular cantankerous clan, yet their lofty pedigrees and imperious nature can’t quell the petty sniping and rebellious attitudes that consume their unruly brood and threaten to crack the family’s foundation.
The Lion in Winter did not take Broadway by storm when it premiered in 1966 (it ran for only 92 performances), but director Anthony Harvey’s 1968 film version, brilliantly adapted by Goldman, won far more success and acclaim. Opening up the drama broadens its scope, while filming in medieval castles in Wales and the South of France brings welcome authenticity to the tale, which is distinguished by innumerable brisk, poetic exchanges that cleverly blend a Shakespearean rhythm and formality with contemporary turns of phrase. And hearing the delicious quips, put-downs, and comebacks roll off the tongues of such esteemed performers as O’Toole, Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins, and a young Timothy Dalton in his film debut is one of the picture’s great pleasures.
Shortly after his 50th birthday, Henry II comes to terms with his impending mortality, and his intense desire to keep his realm secure and intact compels him to begin contemplating succession. He invites his three sons - Richard (Hopkins), Geoffrey (John Castle), and John (Nigel Terry) - as well as his imprisoned wife Eleanor to celebrate Christmas at his castle in Chinon, France, where he plans to select his heir to the throne. Henry favors John, but Eleanor campaigns hard for the lionhearted Richard, and over the course of the tumultuous holidays, everyone - including the neglected Geoffrey - spins devious webs, double-crosses their adversaries, and enacts Machiavellian manipulations as they jockey for the king’s favor and seek to gain the upper hand.
Spicing up the brew is a special house guest, the young King Philip II of France (Dalton), the son of Eleanor’s ex-husband, who harbors his own agenda and refuses to be marginalized and dismissed by the larger-than-life Henry. And then there’s Philip’s half-sister Alais (Jane Merrow), whom Eleanor helped raise and who now occupies Henry’s bed as his devoted mistress, much to Eleanor’s chagrin. Alais becomes a pivotal pawn in the diabolical succession games, but Philip proves a formidable opponent for the beleaguered Henry, who begins to fear no one is qualified to replace him and the country he has fought so hard to build will ultimately collapse.
Goldman’s Oscar-winning script tries hard to educate us on English and French history while the shenanigans play out, but a brief brush-up on who’s who and who did what to whom prior to viewing will improve the experience immeasurably. The period is incredibly fascinating, and the depiction of Henry’s court as a primitive fortress populated by unkempt peasants, free-running chickens, and a lusty barbarism (it is 1183, after all) shows just how far the British monarchy has evolved over the past eight-plus centuries.
And yet the family dynamics Goldman so astutely dramatizes remain strikingly unchanged. Siblings campaign for favor, nurse wounds inflicted by parental neglect, and pit their parents against each other, while the battling mother and father and husband and wife constantly butt heads. In a delicious display of verbal gamesmanship, Henry and Eleanor try to find common ground while endlessly seeking an advantage over the other and furiously paddling away from all the water that’s flowed under their marital bridge. The underlying love remains, but sometimes finding it amid the muck is a challenge...and embracing it is even harder.
Hepburn won her third Best Actress Oscar (tying with Barbra Streisand for Funny Girl) for her bravura portrayal of the calculating, cunning, fiercely maternal yet oh-so-vulnerable Eleanor. The 61-year-old star was already a grande dame of Hollywood, and she portrays this medieval grande dame with a mesmerizing mix of fury, tenderness, and acerbic - at times even bawdy - humor. Once seen, her majestic entrance on an open riverboat will be long remembered (as will her radiant farewell on the same vessel), and her crackling chemistry with O’Toole ignites the screen.
O’Toole had previously portrayed Henry II in 1964’s Becket, but this performance, which received a Best Actor Oscar nomination, is more robust and free-wheeling. Like the titular lion, the bearded, bushy-haired O’Toole growls and bellows as he leaps around his castle trying to protect his turf and vanquish all pretenders. Eleanor constantly evens the playing field, and her feline machinations drive the blustery Henry to distraction.
Hopkins, in only his second feature film, makes a strong impression as the sexually conflicted Richard, who shares an abnormally close bond with his manipulative mother while harboring a fierce desire for the dashing French king. Dalton holds his own with the current and future cinema legends, while Terry, who also makes his film debut here and would later portray the noble King Arthur in Excalibur, contributes a colorful turn as the grubby, spoiled, immature John.
Though the acting and writing steal the show, The Lion in Winter remains a deeply satisfying film. Harvey also nabbed an Oscar nod for his direction, and his expertise is evident in almost every frame. From the beautiful cinematography and production design to the memorable Oscar-nominated music score and Oscar-nominated costumes, the movie constantly excites the senses while stimulating the brain. This Lion has both bark and bite, so sit back, relax, and let him roar.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The 50th Anniversary Edition of The Lion in Winter arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and both DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 tracks are included. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Newly restored in 4K, The Lion in Winter looks absolutely glorious on Blu-ray, at last giving fans of this captivating film the transfer they've been waiting for. Contrast and clarity have never been better and lend the vibrant image an almost three-dimensional immediacy at times. Grain is evident, yet it's beautifully resolved, providing essential texture that preserves the film-like feel and complements the dank, gloomy interiors where most of the narrative transpires. Whether indoors or outdoors, cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (Raiders of the Lost Ark) produces striking images that tantalize the eye and honor their rustic locations. Colors are sparingly employed, but the palette pops when they appear. Reds are especially bold (Hepburn's flowing robe lights up the screen), but the verdant greens of the palace grounds also exude a pleasing lushness, as do the occasional splashes of yellow. Blacks are prevalent, and they're always deep and inky, yet terrific shadow delineation keeps crush in check. The bright whites never bloom, flesh tones remain natural and stable throughout, and distinct background details allow us to appreciate the stone carvings and fine embroidery that grace sets and costumes. Close-ups, many of which are extreme, exhibit a breathtaking sharpness that showcases facial features like wrinkles and blemishes, as well as unkempt hair and beards. Most of the source material is clean, with only errant nicks and marks dotting the print, but a rough patch or two with more noticeable and distracting damage keeps this transfer from earning a perfect score. Still, without a doubt, this is the best The Lion in Winter has ever looked on home video, making this a celebratory 50th Anniversary Edition indeed.
Both DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 tracks are included on the disc, and both supply clear, well-modulated sound. Dialogue is more pronounced on the 2.0 track, which also exudes a more hollow timbre that emphasizes the echoes that resonate along the palace’s stone-lined corridors. While surround activity is almost completely absent on the 5.1 mix, stereo separation is more noticeable, and the audio adopts a richer, fuller tone. Sonic accents like clanking swords, clapping hands, and barking dogs are wonderfully crisp, as are subtleties like footsteps crunching against dirt and roaring flames in the massive palace fireplace. Superior fidelity and tonal depth heighten the impact of John Barry’s Oscar-winning score and its choral extensions, both of which fill the room with ease, and all the dialogue, despite an array of accents, is easy to comprehend. Solid bass frequencies supply necessary weight, a wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows with ease (though on occasion a few of O’Toole’s outbursts flirt with distortion), and no age-related hiss, pops, or crackles intrude. Despite the film’s talky nature, there's a lot of aural interest on these tracks, and both immerse us in the action.
Just a couple of supplements are included on this 50th anniversary release. Interviews with Hopkins and/or Dalton reflecting on their experiences would have been a terrific addition, but sadly are not included.
Audio Commentary - Director Anthony Harvey died in late 2017 at age 87, but this excellent commentary, recorded in 2000, preserves for posterity his keen insights and perspectives. Harvey recalls how he got into films and his initial trepidation regarding The Lion in Winter, discusses his “austere” approach to the material and desire to accurately depict the period’s ghastly living conditions, and describes Hepburn as “a wonderful kind of Auntie Mame.” He also points out the various locations in France, Wales, and Ireland where the picture was shot, praises the actors, notes the “extraordinary chemistry” between O’Toole and Hepburn, shares several anecdotes from the set (as well as memories of Oscar night), and even occasionally criticizes his work. Though some lengthy gaps plague the track, especially as the film progresses, Harvey’s remarks enhance appreciation for both this classic movie and its underrated director.
Interview with Sound Recordist Simon Kaye (HD, 10 minutes) - Kaye recalls his experiences working on the film and how the decision to avoid any post-production looping of dialogue presented unique challenges. He also talks about occasional difficulties with Hopkins’ Welsh accent, the movie’s various locations, the generosity of the esteemed cast, and his unexpected BAFTA nomination.
Trailers (HD, 15 minutes) - In addition to the original theatrical preview for The Lion in Winter, trailers for two films starring Hepburn (A Delicate Balance and The Trojan Women) and two starring Hopkins (Juggernaut and When Eight Bells Toll) are also included.
Part searing historical drama, part biting domestic comedy, The Lion in Winter remains a rollicking, razor sharp, and altogether riveting portrait of a bickering British royal family who reunites for a back-stabbing Christmas in 1183. Director Anthony Harvey's adaptation of James Goldman's Broadway play chronicles the Machiavellian maneuvering and machinations that consume the blustery King Henry II, his formidable exiled wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their three devious sons as Henry struggles to name a successor to his throne. The crackling, literate dialogue rolls off the tongues of such esteemed actors as Peter O'Toole, Katharine Hepburn, and Anthony Hopkins like pure poetry, and their memorable performances, along with an authentic atmosphere, beautiful cinematography, and stirring music, elevates this captivating production. Kino's 50th anniversary Blu-ray presentation skimps a bit on supplements, but features an all-new, often breathtaking 4K remaster that restores the film to its original grandeur and both 5.1 and 2.0 lossless soundtracks. A Blu-ray release of The Lion in Winter has been a long-time coming, but this is definitely worth the wait an comes Highly Recommended.