The Sovereigns Next Door
In The Lion in Winter, King Henry II (Peter O'Toole) compares himself to an earlier British monarch. King Lear, he says, was also eroded by age, and by the duty of parceling his domain among ungrateful heirs. But there the re semblance ends. Henry is not Lear; and Henry's princes are not Lear's daughters.
More important, Scriptwriter James Goldman is not William Shakespeare.
Goldman, who adapted the screenplay from his 1966 Broadway drama, can hardly be blamed for that, but he does not even seem to know who the real James Goldman is. Sometimes he seems to be a swaggering Elizabethan playwright whose rhetorical sword never gets out of its scabbard. "The sky is pocked with stars," sighs Henry. "Has my willow turned to poison oak?" he inquires of his mistress. At other times, Goldman is an anachronistic historian. "It's 1183, and we're all barbarians," announces the Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn). Often Goldman is simply a pig-bladder comedian. After Eleanor announces to Henry that she has slept with his father, the King stumbles angrily from her bedroom. "Well," shrugs Eleanor to the camera, "what family doesn't have its ups and downs?"
The possibility of a regal drama is lost amidst this ragged anthology of styles and postures. In theatrical tradition, the fortunes of king and queen were the human situation writ large. In Goldman's hands, the process is reversed; Henry and Eleanor are reduced to a TV-sized version of the sovereigns next door, their epic struggles shrunk to sitch-com squabbles, and their children mere refractions of their mean spirits.
Despite the script, The Lion in Winter often succeeds, primarily because of its stars. O'Toole, as the cunning, quirky King Henry, explodes with lofty authority when he catches his snarling cubs trying to unseat the old lion, or when he condemns his malign wife to lifelong imprisonment. As Eleanor, Hepburn is, at 59, unmistakably Hepburn; the quavering accent is still as prominent as her cheekbones. But she adds to what might have been simply a personality portrayal a sly, dry delivery that breaks her brittle dialogue in all the right places. As she mocks herself in a hand mirror, it is not hard to see the aristocratic beauty that was once reflected there. And, in truth, still is.