The Lion in Winter is available to rent or buy now.
With a fascinating mix of film and theatre, Anthony Harvey’s adaptation of the celebrated stage play, The Lion in Winter, offers us a lavish portrait of a medieval Christmas. Here the festive celebrations of 1183 are a mere backdrop as Henry II of England brings his family together with the secret intention of announcing his successor from one of his three sons. The Lion in Winter brilliantly combines political aspiration with personal turmoil as the question of royal succession consumes a dysfunctional family. Due to the masterful screenplay (written by James Goldman and based on his own play), The Lion in Winter remains a riveting watch. There is almost an air of Game of Thrones in the political scheming alongside a dash of what could only be described as a medieval version of Succession.
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However, a strong screenplay also needs a great cast to reach its full potential, and Harvey’s film sings. The Lion in Winter boasts one of the greatest ensemble casts of any 1960s movie (and yes, I know How the West Was Won was also released in this decade). Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn’s natural chemistry and magnetism are glorious as they bicker relentlessly. But when you add the feature debut of Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton as Richard Lionheart and Philip II of France, The Lion in Winter becomes a striking example of stage meets screen.
Of course, this merger of stage and film also comes with risks, and there are times where The Lion in Winter feels slightly too stagey. But trust me, this minor flaw never distracts from the sheer talent on display or the outstanding screenplay. It’s interesting that The Lion in Winter rarely finds praise as a classic Christmas film, despite its festive backdrop.
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This may be due to the festivities playing second fiddle to the historical drama at its core, but its setting is equally as important. After all, here we find the festive family get-together in all its complexity, disagreements, backbiting, and one-upmanship; in fact, you may question if anything has changed since 1183. In my opinion, The Lion in Winter is one of the greatest films of the 1960s, and one that speaks to an eternal Christmas truth, family get-togethers, royal or otherwise, are often shrouded in rivalry and competition.