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In the waning years of his life, but no less brutal for it, King Henry II (Golden Globe and Emmy nominee Patrick Stewart, (X-Men, Star Trek, Moby Dick, King of Texas, Family Guy) is holding Christmas court at Chinon, during which he ll announce the blood successor to his throne. Assembled for this event are his equally calculating wife, Eleanor of Acquitaine (Emmy winner and Oscar nominee Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs, Fatal Attraction, Damages), imprisoned for ten years by her husband for a political coup of her own; his shamelessly flaunted mistress, Alais (Julia Vysotskaia), and her venomous brother, King Philip of France (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Mission Impossible III, Bend it like Beckham Velvet Goldmine); and Henry s three sons, Prince Richard the Lionhearted (Andrew Howard, Band of Brothers), who can t fathom the depth of leadership, the shallow Prince Geoffrey ( John Light, Dracula 2), and the luckless and bumbling Prince John (Rafe Spall, The Calcium Kid).
What the three siblings share is a gift for treachery.
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I was fortunate to be in NY in 1966 and was taken by friends to the Colonial Theatre to see the stage production of James Goldman's play starring the incomparable Robert Preston. I must admit that I was not terribly impressed with the play although Robert Preston's performance was marvellous.
The Lion in Winter is a fictional account set during Christmas 1183, at Henry 's court in France. Henry wants his favoured younger son John to inherit his throne, whilst Richard is suported in his claim by Queen Eleanor who has been temporarily released from captivity by the King, and the third brother Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany conspires with Philip of France and John to declare war against their father. In fact there was no Christmas court at Chinon in 1183 and there is no historical record confirming that Henry, Eleanor, their sons and Philip of France were ever gathered together at this time, and some characters such as Henry's mistress are a merging of more than one real life persons; but the events and issues are historically correct.
The 1968 film with Peter O'Toole and Katherine Hepburn is one of my all time favourite movies and it was with some reserve that I purchased this made for TV remake, mostly because I am a great fan of Patrick Stewart who is one of Britain's finest actors.
I was disappointed, both Stewart and Glenn Close are fine actors and gave good performances but the special magic of the 1968 version was missing and I found the production somewhat lacklustre.
I believe that it is almost always a mistake to attempt a remake of a classic film, which is what the 1968 version has become, even using the best of actors.
However, I also think that it is clear that the specter of the original film hangs over the entire cast of this production. By that I mean that it seems like every single memorable line from the play (and there are literally dozens) is delivered in a decidedly different way. Specifically, Close plays Eleanor of Aquitaine as being much more emotional, which is rather ironic given that her ex-husband, the late King of France, is described as being a weeper. This means that when Eleanor has what should be her final emotional collapse at the end of the film, it is really just another in what has been a series of emotional moments. As for Stewart, his Henry II tends to underplay all of the key moments. It certainly seems that every time O'Toole engages in bluster and bombast, Stewart goes quiet, bordering on a whisper. Again, I can only conclude that these were conscious choices because they stand out so boldly against the original film version.
This is not to say that I am against new productions of the play. I would have loved to have seen Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris on Broadway or the Roundabout Theater production starring Laurence Fishburne and Stockard Channing. But Stewart and Close make choices, obviously endorsed by director Andrei Konchalovsky, that remove much of the fire from Goldman's brilliant dialogue. For those who have never seen a production of "The Lion in Winter" they may get a sense of the high quality of the drama, but I do not believe they get the complete picture, even if Close's performance is endorsed by her Emmy Award.
"The Lion in Winter" takes place during Christmas 1183, when Henry II, King of England, summons family to his castle in Chinon, France. At issue is the question of who will be Henry's successor to the English throne. Henry wants his youngest son, John (Rafe Spall), while Eleanor supports their eldest surviving son, Richard the Lionheart (Andrew Howard), which leaves middle son Geoffrey (John Light, in what I think is the best performance because I like his spin on the character). Also along for the ride are Henry's mistress, Alais Capet (Yuliya Vysotskaya), who is supposed to marry the heir, and her brother, Philip (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), the young King of France.
The chief attraction here is that while Henry and the rest play out their power games through a series of confrontations, feints, compromises, and sudden reversals they are delivering their lines with an extraordinary level of insight, wit, and irony. That is, of course, provided they are delivered so as not to undercut the power of the lines. The confrontations between Henry and Eleanor are supposed to be a clash of heavyweights and the cast here is dropping down in weight class.
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