The late James Goldman’s Oscar-winning screenplay has lost little of its luster 36 years later, in an impressive remake that provides delectably meaty roles for Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close. Inasmuch as Goldman (who died in 1998) adapted the film from his stage play, the close-in material lends itself well to television, what with its lacerating verbal confrontations, court intrigue and “Masterpiece Theatre”-like trappings. Beautifully shot but carrying an extra 20 minutes or so of screen time from its prior incarnation, “The Lion in Winter” is a long sit but nevertheless a rewarding one.
Both Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn garnered Oscar nominations (with the latter winning) for the original, which might explain why the principals couldn’t resist a trip to Hungary and Slovakia to re-shoot Goldman’s script under director Andrei Konchalovsky.
Anyone whose familiarity with the period is derived from the Robin Hood tales will be in for a rude awakening upon absorbing this zesty look at King Henry II (Stewart); his jailed queen, Eleanor of Aquitane (Close); and their three despicable sons, including the crusading Richard the Lionheart and the dolt who would in future years usurp his throne, John.
Aging but “still a marvel of a man,” as Eleanor calls him, Henry has survived many attempts to dethrone him — among them a civil war led by his wife and two elder sons a decade earlier, chronicled in a previously unseen prologue.
Reluctantly facing his own mortality, the king must now grapple with the matter of succession. What to do, though, when all three of Henry’s boys — the brutal Richard (Andrew Howard), scheming Geoffrey (John Light) and bumbling John (Rafe Spall) — covet his crown, though Henry inexplicably favors the last of them, while Eleanor dotes on Richard.
Still drawn to each other and loaded with venom, the two aging monarchs essentially play a high-stakes game of chess with real pawns, or Monopoly with real provinces and countries, take your pick. Henry, for example, has a comely mistress (Julia Vysotsky) and he’s willing to marry her off to secure what he wants, even though her brother happens to be France’s 19-year-old king, Phillip (the stellar Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), who proves a cagier adversary than Henry could have imagined.
For you Gen-Xers, try thinking of it as a 12th century version of “The OC,” with more flamboyant costumes.
Peppered with brilliant dialogue — “My, what a greedy little trinity you are,” Eleanor hisses to her sons — this new “Lion” showcases a first-rate pride, beginning with Close. To the actress’s credit, her Eleanor manages to stand apart from Hepburn’s — seemingly drawing equally from Close’s earlier roles in “Dangerous Liaisons” and “Reversal of Fortune.”
Stewart also cuts a fine figure as the bellowing Henry, in a more age-appropriate bit of casting than O’Toole, who was in his mid-30s (and a shocking quarter-century Hepburn’s junior) when he donned the cloak.
Producer Robert Halmi Sr. has long been fascinated with reviving such prestigious material, and it’s noteworthy that this latest endeavor wound up on pay TV, which is perhaps where it most belongs. For despite meticulous production values and solid performances throughout, it’s hard to envision much of a mainstream audience for such a cerebral exercise today, especially with ads for Dentu-Grip interrupting the oratory.
In that respect, it’s nice that Showtime is around to provide sanctuary for productions about an aging leader with screwed-up children — whether it’s this, or “The Reagans.”