“Of course he has a knife! I have a knife. We all have knives. It’s 1183 and we’re all barbarians!”
It was more morbid curiosity that drew me to this 2003 TV movie remake of The Lion in Winter than anything, its most recent appearance on a London stage hardly setting the world alight, but a cast list that included John Light and Rafe Spall as well as the more luminary lights of Glenn Close and Patrick Stewart (taking the roles made famous by Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole in the 1968 film) added to the appeal. What was interesting though was how much I’d forgotten about James Goldman’s approach to this dynastic struggle, as humourous as it is historical.
So though it might appear dry – Henry II’s determination to overrule his estranged wife Eleanor of Aquitaine in naming their son John (of the Magna Carta) as his successor rather than the older Richard (of the Lionheart) – it’s actually a spiky family comedy-drama as the brothers, completed by Geoffrey the other one, duck and dive through the political machinations of their parents and the ever-present threat of Philip II of France whose sister Alais is contracted to be betrothed to whoever will be heir and is currently Henry’s mistress.
The Lion in Winter began life as a play and the astuteness of Andrey Konchalovskiy‘s direction thoroughly acknowledges this, encouraging Close and Stewart to revel in the theatricality of Goldman’s dialogue and classy thespians that they are, they run with it without ever overplaying it too much. Their chemistry together is quite something to behold, their titanic battle of wills a constant thrill but always tempered by an acknowledgement of their shared history, a tenderness even, that Close plays beautifully in Eleanor’s more fragile moments.
The boys fare slightly less well and I’m not sure it’s completely down to them, their characters are indubitably weaker. Andrew Howard does best with his Lionheart, especially when connecting with Jonathan Rhys Meyer’s Gallic monarch but too often, there’s nothing for the boys to do but pout (as referenced in the text) and posture and so John Light’s middle child Geoffrey and Rafe Spall (before he lost the weight) a horribly boorish John. So a lot more enjoyable than I thought it would be, especially for its lead performances, but still not essential.