The Lears in Winter

Andrei Konchalovsky’s 2003 Hallmark remake of The Lion in Winter showcases author James Goldman’s belief that his play is for the Ages, that it should be performed as if it is a classic, presumably close to King Lear. The Lion is Winter is probably not a genuine classic; what makes it unusual, and what made the 1968 movie a treat, is that it’s an entertainment that blends historic familial dysfunction with modern comedic gusto. There obviously needs to be an energetic effrontery to charge through the audacious mix, and that’s what Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn and their supporters Anthony Hopkins, John Castle, Nigel Terry and Timothy Dalton provide. They and director Anthony Harvey knew they couldn’t afford any time between some of the impossibly raunchy lines because otherwise they’d lose the audience’s receptiveness. This, I think, may be the key discomfort with the 2003 version: we spend too much time—even if it’s only seconds—awaiting the killer dialogue. In scene after scene for the first hour Glenn Close is directed to stall the zingers we know are coming. For those who remember well the O’Toole-Hepburn version, the first pang of difficulty will come shortly after Close’s Eleanor arrives at Chinon and greets her three sons. We await her lines, “But I do have handsome” children and “Such, my angels, is the role of sex in history” but when finally hearing them, the slack in timing fractures the delivery. It isn’t that we’re expecting another Hepburn show—though Close grants bits that are clear tribute to her—it’s that we’re expecting to laugh. She tries to give the usurious contemporary chat some humorous punch yet, given that the production is on a slow reverential clock, the best she can do is moderate Goldman’s excesses without making us cry out “Ouch!” She has some golden moments, especially in the later half when she hears she’s to be annulled and decides to taunt her husband with his likely faulty sperm and badger him with the rumors that she slept with his father. She knew, of course, that her performance would be compared to Hepburn’s, but she’s no clone; every bit the drama queen Goldman has penned, with a hardened face and a chin that goes out to here, she crackles and snaps and pops. You wouldn’t want to be one of her victims; you come to believe her next role should be Lady Macbeth. (And no first rate actress has had to suffer more from some unquestionably hideous scene-stealing headdresses and costumes—made from what look like rejected fabric bolts you’d find at Anna’s Linens—that ended up winning an Emmy!) Lack of theatrical blustery dampens Patrick Stewart as Henry II: he says early on to France’s King Philip, “When I bellow, bellow back.” But there’s no bellowing; he’s rather fatigued, as if he is playing Lear. (In one close up, exiting his three sons’ betrayal, he certainly appears ready to tackle him.) Giving his tribute, Stewart’s Henry is not the vigorous fear of mortality that is his predecessor, until the last fourth of the movie, during which he springs to action and pulls off the climax. The younger members of the cast—Andrew Howard as Richard (sweating in midi-length chain mail), John Light as Geoffrey, Rafe Spall as John (a grotesque, fattened up Tim Robbins), Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as effeminate Philip and the director’s wife Yuliya Vysotskaya as Alais (pronounced here as Ah Leese)—are effective when not being nebbishly lightweight. The ensemble’s diction is, however, often more clear and precise than in the 1968 version. Richard Hartley’s score is considerably more subdued than John Barry’s medieval mass. Golden Globe and the Screen Actors Guild honors to Close as Best Actress in a TV movie. Filmed in Hungry and at the Spissky Castle in Slovakia.

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