My favorite movie of all time is 1968’s The Lion in Winter, staring Peter O’toole and Katherine Hepburn in the lead roles of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. When I heard several years ago that a new version was being made with Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close in the lead roles, I was both nervous and anxious. In interviews, Stewart spoke of this as a pet project of his and there was obviously a lot of love on his part going into it. So how did he and his fellow actors do? I’ll get to that in a moment.
First, let me lay out the basic plot: The year is 1183 and Christmas is coming. King Henry II of England is having a Christmas court at Chinon Castle and has invited his three sons, his wife and the new King of France to join him. Earlier in the year, his eldest son Henry died in an accident and now the King has to decide upon a new heir. King Henry favors his youngest John, who nearly everyone else regards as an immature fool. Queen Eleanor, who has been imprisoned for the past ten years for staging a revolt against her husband, favors older and more experienced Richard. When they all finally converge, it will be a very bitter family reunion.
Chief amongst the reasons for this being my favorite film is the dialogue. It is sharp, smart, funny and incredibly quotable. It ranks equally with “All about Eve” in terms of great scripts. Given this, shouldn’t the new film work just as well as the old one? Well, yes and no. The interpretations are different and this is sometimes good and sometimes bad. The best way to break this down is to take the seven principle characters and compare the two performances of each:
King Henry II (Peter O’toole and Patrick Stewart): It was Stewart’s idea to do the remake so he coproduced the film. His love for the material motivated him, so as a fellow fan I applaud him for it. Still, I have to say that he may be the weakest performance of the new film. As good as Stewart is in general, he has a tough task in creating something as memorable as O’toole in the original. O’toole as Henry is a force of nature. He yells and growls and proves himself the Lion of the title, even though he has just reached 50 and is in his “winter” years. Stewart is too reserved and there is not enough of the passion in his performance. Perhaps after playing Jean Luc Picard for so long, this is the only way he can play a leader of men. The biggest comparison to make is Henry’s “My life when it is written” speech to his three sons. O’toole speaks it slowly and softly and builds it to a crying yell which conveys his being torn apart inside. Stewart starts softly and build to sternness, as if the boys were simply very naughty, but really never treats the betrayals as anything more than an irritating inconvenience.
Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katherine Hepburn and Glenn Close): I had my fears about Close. Seeing advance pictures of the film, I could see they were dressing her exactly as Hepburn dressed in the original, and I was very afraid that she would attempt a Hepburn-type quaver to her voice and mimic her. Fortunately, this was not the case. Close brings her own spin to the character and enunciation, and it isn’t bad. Compared to Stewart, she is far more emotional, but I still think she was too flippant at times compared to the words she was reciting. A key to the film is that, despite everything that happens and is said, there remains a deep love between Henry and Eleanor. Close comes closer than Stewart at communicating this, but Hepburn was closer still.
Richard (Anthony Hopkins and Andrew Howard) and Geoffrey (John Castle and John Light): I mentioned that Stewart and Close were more closed off emotionally than O’toole and Hepburn. If anything, the opposite is true for Richard and Geoffrey. In the original, both were very stiff at times. Richard would only show rage and sorrow at intense moments, while Geoffrey was entirely a statue. In the new version, both are more open. This is both good and bad for Richard. Two favorite lines are given a different spin:
Richard: “You hardly know me Johnny, so I beg you to believe my reputation: I am a constant soldier, a sometime poet, and I will be King.”
John: “Just you remember: Father loves me best.”
In the new one, it’s delivered as a boisterous boast to John, to which John simply mocks back his favored status. In the older version, It’s delivered by Hopkins coldly as a fact and a warning, to which John can only meekly spout back the only thing he has going for him. Other than this exchange, Howard gives Hopkins a run for his money in the role. He is believable as the ferocious warrior as well as the wounded son. I think this new performance of Geoffrey is the one true improvement on character. Although he’s described in both as a “device” with “wheels and gears”, Castle takes this to literal truth. Light, however, shows the pain of being a rejected middle child and to what ends he is willing to go to make others suffer for it.
John (Nigel Terry and Rafe Spall): The people who remade the film retained the original film’s script, which is an adaptation of the play. Some dialogue is switched around to different scenes and other dialogue is excised entirely. John suffers the most for this and comes off as even more of a dolt than in the play. His use is more of comic relief and to show Henry’s love for him as blind. Although the character is supposed to be awkward, Spall played him too much in this direction, sputtering and stumbling and flailing his arms about. His very deep voice also got on my nerves after awhile. Terry, who would go on to play Arthur in Excalibur, does many of the same things as Spall such as often hang his mouth open in confusion, but simply seems better suited for the role than Spall.
King Philip of France (Timothy Dalton and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers): Philip is meant to be cold and scheming, and both actors do this well. They are also supposed to have a feminine quality about them. Dalton was smooth and delicate as the young King, while Rhys-Meyers is damn near androgynous with his long shampooed hair and angular face. Although Henry constantly goads him about his youth, Rhys-Meyers comes off as more of a boy than Dalton does. Still, Dalton is the better actor of the two and is overall more convincing in the role.
Alais (Jane Merrow and Yuliya Vysotskaya): Alais is the sister to Philip and also Henry’s longtime mistress. The land bequeathed to Henry is vital and he does not wish to lose her or it. She states herself to be a “pawn” in all the arguments that are made, and so she is. Hers is a small role, with her only real consequence near the end when she convinces Henry to commit a horrible act. Both actresses do well with what little they are given. Vysotskaya has a passing French accent, while the British Merrow doesn’t even try one. Both do well with the role.
There are other aspects of the film worth mentioning. The castle sets for the original film were more convincing. The sets for the new one seem structured as if it were still a stage play: A central chamber where several big scenes take place with most of the other rooms stemming from it. The costumes for both are very good (the original won the Oscar for Best Costume Design). In the end, though, the actors do make the film, and the original still has the upper hand. If given the choice between the two, then pick the original. If you only have the new version to choose, then you should still see it. The script is too good, and the actors do a commendable effort with it. No matter what, the story itself is a must see.
1968 version: Ten out of Ten
2003 version: Seven out of Ten