The Lion In Winter

by Christopher Hartley
Tuesday Jul 20, 2004
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It’s always treacherous to attempt a remake of a film classic, especially one that garnered Katherine Hepburn a Best Actress Oscar for the original 1968 version. It inevitably invites comparison, and unless the director has found a novel way to re-interpret the material, it’ll never be anything more than an inferior designer knock-off.

It’s a shame that two such stellar actors as Glenn Close and Patrick Stewart, working from James Goldman’s original brilliant, catty script, are completely adrift here. The original film paired Hepburn with Peter O’Toole as King Henry II, who has conquered half of France and, having lost his favorite oldest son, must choose a new heir to the thrown from among his remaining scheming sons.

Close, as Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Stewart’s King Henry, never attain the high-wire, on-screen chemistry that Hepburn and O’Toole bristled with from first frame to the last. Close in particular seems weighed down by her role, straining to channel Hepburn, even delivering her lines in near parody. I half expected Close to burst out, "Oh Henry, you old poop!" at any moment. At the beginning of the second half -- the film is really a two-part made-for-cable movie -- Close literally lets her hair down and, oddly, it seems to momentarily free her.

Stewart, a classically trained Shakespearean actor, has plenty of credentials to pull off a first-rate Type-A personality monarch. Perhaps too conscious of O’Toole’s over-the-top performance, he reigns it in in an attempt to bring some depth and humanity (or perhaps humility) to Henry. It might have worked if this were being done as a modern day tale, but undoubtedly in 1183 you didn’t survive decades of war, coups, and assassination attempts by being Mr. Nice Guy. Frustrated that there’s not more sport in negotiating with the inexperienced nineteen year-old King Philip, Henry barks, "Boy, when I bellow, bellow back!"

With everyone trampling over their lines until they are diffused of any impact, and with no other star power to draw upon (the next nearest "name" being Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as France’s King Philip), the film stalls.

The screenplay is the real star here, but it never gets to shine. Nothing is so delicious as the war of words that Eleanor and Henry fling at each other. But if you really want to see how it’s done, forget about 1183; 1968 is the year that matters.

Close Captionining (English), 2.0 Dolby Stereo and 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround, and a "Making of" featurette.

Christopher Hartley is a native of Southern California, but fled to the warm embrace of Boston several years ago. When not working in higher education or reviewing for EDGE, he stays active with Boston’s local gay swim team, Liquid Assets.


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