Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Picked Flick #76: The Lion in Winter

I am tempted to say that The Lion in Winter works better than it should. Its dual lineage in royal history and soap operatics doesn't seem like the recipe for anything but a feathered fish, remote to popular audiences and unrecognizable to more studious ones. The apoplectic performance style of Peter O'Toole whenever he's sprung from the Arabian desert seems like an odd match with Katharine Hepburn's Connecticut vowels and her dry-gin flirts with the camera. For purposes of drama, but also for those of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine themsleves, there are too many sons running about. As in Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet, released the same year, the sets and costumes are pretty but also too...clean. The palace is aspoil with mongrels, hens, and fugitive vegetables, but not a thing has streaked Hepburn's ivory caftan or O'Toole's clabber-colored face, still as white as empire beneath that well-tended beard. Past the edge of every frame, around every palatial corner, you can sense the playhouse audience so clearly intended by these barbs and bon mots.

The Lion in Winter shouldn't work, but then, adding up all of its giddy affronts to seriousness and proper concert, the movie shouldn't do anything but work, and that's exactly my experience of the movie: it works and keeps on working, so succulent that it's no longer absurd, pumping so much pure voltage into its bickery version of history made at night that there's no means of resisting, and no reason to. The Lion in Winter practically reels with its own sense of fun, even as John Barry's timpani and trumpets keep fastening the movie to some form of gravitas, even as Douglas Slocombe's photography, much more interesting than I remembered, casts a fine, sooty dust over these transparently modern personalities. James Goldman's adaptation of his own play is a robust and roustabout chronicle, Holinshed in the age of Peyton Place. Better, having devised this unique blend of annal and sitcom, dotted here and there with unsheathed daggers, he keeps it going ingeniously. I've never been much sold on the work of his more famous brothers. Oldest brother Bo farmed thin conceits in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Melvin and Howard, winning Oscars for both that were more rightly due the directors who placed so much trust in them. Superstar screenwriter and raconteur William, well-seasoned with experience but annoyingly arch all the same, has even more overrated titles to his credit, like the thin wisp of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and the preening whimsy of The Princess Bride. The Lion in Winter has what none of these films have—though, giving credit where it's due, William's ace distillation of All the President's Men has it, too: a braced and solid structure, a gallery of finely etched characters, a huckster's gift for streamlining and popularizing the arcane, a beating heart of popcorn appeal that still allows the film to go about its business, aggressively selling its strengths but never just shilling them.

Certainly I've never liked O'Toole nearly so much in his other films as I do here. His Henry is livelier as well as more serious than his counterpart performance in Becket, though it helps that Anthony Harvey is a much better judge of camera distance and emotional beats than Becket's Peter Glenville was. Katharine Hepburn bursts forth with by far the best performance of her life after Spence. The standard meme in biographies, including her own, is that she tore into the role with the admittedly displaced energy of massive grief, but it's worth noting that it's as sexy a turn as the one in The Philadelphia Story. Hepburn writhes on her bed, tinders an incestuous spark in the eyes of all her boys, contemplates her own image in a mirror shaped like a dragon's tear, and lures a leading man 25 years her junior into a vivacious, erotic battle of wills that goes off like a charm. Maybe she was just turned on by all those great lines she gets to recite and react to. "She smiled to excess but she chewed with real distinction," Eleanor offers in perfect dismissal of a rival who, let's not forget, is already long dead.

"I marvel at you after all these years," mutters her nonplussed husband, "still like a democratic drawbridge going down for everybody."

Shooting back at Henry's autumnal dreams of having more and different children, Eleanor asks, "What kind of spindly, rickety, milky, wizened, dim-eyed, gammy-handed, limpy line of things will you beget? And when you die, which is regrettable but necessary, what will happen to fair Alais and her pruny prince?" Give Katharine Hepburn that many consonants to bite down on, sit back, and luxuriate. That Eleanor of Aquitaine can hardly be entertained to have said any such thing hardly matters; that Pauline Kael spat vituperatively on the whole ship matters just as little. A slim skiff, maybe. Its last act is utterly at sixes and sevens, and the actual finale slips right off the screen. But it's a proud pageant up to that point, punchy and uproarious, a royal flag unfurled for the cause of popular delight. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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Anonymous goatdog said...

I love love love this movie. I made a CD of the dialog to listen to on long road trips.

11:09 AM, November 09, 2005  

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