The Liar in Winter
Last night I was finally able to see the new 4K restoration of The Lion in Winter on a large screen. What better time than now after the Inauguration, to watch a film with old actors in a drama of the dark ages in which all the characters are only interested in personal goals and are willing to break all civilized norms to achieve them (including making deals with avowed national rivals)? In the middle of things, Henry II (Peter O’Toole) even says, “God I love winning” (or something to that effect) and he is constantly telling other people how he has just won. Owing to the need to preserve the 12th century atmosphere, however, the King did not use twitter to express himself.
Henry’s family is also surprisingly contemporary. All of his children are unattractive schemers. I won’t involve our current ruler’s wife in comparisons, because my suspicion is that her own gold-digging would have been satisfied being the wife of the owner of the hideous tower on Fifth Avenue where she would happily live. (Like Eleanor in the London Tower?) But if anyone is like her in the film, it is the innocent pawn Alais (Jane Merrow), mistress of Henry, who by treaty with France is require to marry her off to one of his sons. That would make Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn) who? Marla Maples?
The movie itself is quite entertaining, and you owe it to yourself to re-visit it. The acting is the kind of mid-twentieth century stage-for-screen type acting (as in Streetcar Named Desire and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) that we see no more. Today’s substitute is the pretentious mannered dramas, usually period pieces, where acting is designed to garner awards and burnish a star’s seriousness cred. (Independent filmmakers, of course, don’t have the capital to purchase rights to plays, so the field is left to the majors,. who see these as prestige projects—Hollywood’s version of pro bono work.)
What separates the film (and the play it was based on) from our current tragico-farce is of course the language. The stage- and screen-play by James Goldman is witty and intelligent. There are just enough references to the age of Henry and before to anchor the play in the middle ages, but there are intentional anachronisms designed to advise the viewer not to become too concerned about the historicism of the work. Disregard of factual and historical accuracy is a hallmark of the current administration as well, but our present day actors on the national stage have no wit and are not playing to an intelligent audience. I could not bring myself to watch the inaugural address, but reading the text impressed on me how verbally stunted and rhetorically challenged our new president is. If the goal was to impress upon his followers that he was not among the elites of the country in terms of intellect, gracefulness, eloquence or knowledge, he surely accomplished that with his speech. Big ideas generally cannot be expressed by one simple declarative sentence after another. But even the small ideas which he had seemed uncomfortably confined.
In the end of the film we grow to respect, if not admire, both the ancient king and queen, even after we acknowledge Eleanor’s confession that “we are jungle creatures.” Henry discloses to his wife that he wants to control succession because he has learned that peace and honest government are preferable to war, something he spent his life pursuing. . And so even though the ambitions of both Henry and Eleanor seem checkmated in the end, we have some sort of sympathy for both of them. Having seen the nominees of our current leader, his advisors and confidants and watching him act the snarling bully and ungrateful recipient of nearly a plurality of the nation’s vote (short by 3 million or so), breaking tradition, however quaint, that requires the new president to at least act humbled by the responsibility, we have no similar admiration or sympathy for this vulgar egoist. So when the movie ended, the faint good feeling from watching professionals act in a polished and eloquent production, the dark reality of our current situation returns. This is the beginning, not the end, of a national nightmare. And it’s going to get much uglier and more tragic before it’s over. And it won’t be amusing or edifying to watch.