‘Lion’ roars with wintry wit, vitriol

by Sarah Rodman
The Boston Herald, May 23, 2004

“The Lion in Winter” should be required holiday viewing.

Anyone who thinks their family can lay claim to the dysfunction crown will be humbled by this historical tale of scheming royal family members who betray each other with the casual cruelty of a “Survivor” tribemate.

Luckily, in this Showtime remake, they also do it with the elegance and withering wit of James Goldman’s magnificent screenplay, which deservedly won the Oscar for the 1968 original starring Katharine Hepburn as Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine and Peter O’Toole as King Henry Plantagenet II of England.

Stepping into those large shoes and filling them with spark and vitriol are Glenn Close and Patrick Stewart.

It’s Christmas in 1183 and three of Henry’s sons are lusting after the crown: Conquering soldier and serious mama’s boy Richard the Lionhearted (Andrew Howard) seeks power, devious Geoffrey (John Light) seeks glory and attention from the parents who ignored him, and daddy’s favorite, pimply teenager John (Rafe Spall), is just plain greedy.

Into this churning pot of familial malice comes King Phillip II of France (a divinely delicate but menacing Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) with his own agenda. He quickly embroils himself in the intricate plotting and counterplotting. Matters are complicated by the fact that Henry’s mistress, Alais (Yuliya Vysotskaya), is Phillip’s sister and a surrogate child/competitor for Eleanor, and will be married to whichever son is named heir.

Shot on location in Hungary and Slovakia, the 160-minute “Lion” practically shoots icicles through the screen with its snowy vistas and the chill generated by the gifted ensemble.

Stewart, in an oddly fluffy, layered white wig, nimbly, joyfully even, plays Henry as a man with his wits firmly about him even as his knees give out. Close occasionally lapses into some warbly Hepburnisms but is dynamite at crystallizing Eleanor’s warring emotions, turning on a dime from rage to longing to duplicity and most delicious of all, acidic condescension. As Richard says to his mother, “You’re so deceitful, you can’t ask for water when you’re thirsty.”

The three sons are equally spot on, with Spall in particular giving a hilarious performance as the oafish, petulant and none-too-bright John.

With its smart pacing, terrific visuals and nuanced performances, this “Lion” can roar with pride alongside the original.

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