It is impossible for me to watch this Showtime remake of "The Lion in Winter" starring Glenn Close and Patrick Stewart without constantly comparing it to the 1968 theatrical film with Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole. That was the first Hepburn film I ever saw and the way she delivers James Goldman’s great lines (my favorite would be "I could peel you like a pear and God himself would call it justice!") is forever etched in my brain.
However, I also think that it is clear that the specter of the original film hangs over the entire cast of this production. By that I mean that it seems like every single memorable line from the play (and there are literally dozens) is delivered in a decidedly different way. Specifically, Close plays Eleanor of Aquitaine as being much more emotional, which is rather ironic given that her ex-husband, the late King of France, is described as being a weeper. This means that when Eleanor has what should be her final emotional collapse at the end of the film, it is really just another in what has been a series of emotional moments. As for Stewart, his Henry II tends to underplay all of the key moments. It certainly seems that every time O’Toole engages in bluster and bombast, Stewart goes quiet, bordering on a whisper. Again, I can only conclude that these were conscious choices because they stand out so boldly against the original film version.
This is not to say that I am against new productions of the play. I would have loved to have seen Robert Preston and Julie Harris on Broadway or the Roundabout Theater production starring Laurence Fishburne and Stockard Channing. But Stewart and Close make choices, obviously endorsed by director Andrei Konchalovsky, that remove much of the fire from Goldman’s brilliant dialogue. For those who have never seen a production of "The Lion in Winter" they may get a sense of the high quality of the drama, but I do not believe they get the complete picture.
The Lion in Winter takes place during Christmas 1183, when Henry II, King of England, summons family to his castle in Chinon, France. At issue is the question of who will be Henry’s successor to the English throne. Henry wants his youngest son, John (Rafe Spall), while Eleanor supports their eldest surviving son, Richard the Lionheart (Andrew Howard), which leaves middle son Geoffrey (John Light, in what I think is the best performance because I like his spin on the character). Also along for the ride are Henry’s mistress, Alais Capet (Yuliya Vysotskaya), who is supposed to marry the heir, and her brother, Philip (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), the young King of France.
The chief attraction here is that while Henry and the rest play out their power games through a series of confrontations, feints, compromises, and sudden reversals they are delivering their lines with an extraordinary level of insight, wit, and irony. That is, of course, provided they are delivered so as not to undercut the power of the lines. The confrontations between Henry and Eleanor are supposed to be a clash of heavyweights and the cast here is dropping down in weight class.