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Those who jones for Thrones are in luck – sort of. If Medieval intrigue is your thing, and you don’t mind a substitution of straight-up fantasy for historical fantasy, then your next dose of royal jockeying and primogenitive treachery is coming gift-wrapped in time for winter, thanks to StudioCanal’s restored release of The Lion In Winter. Peter O’Toole, on appropriately magisterial form, plays the ageing King Henry II.
Anxious to announce his successor and weary of a life of war and struggle, his final battle appears to be a political jujitsu in which he must secure peace with France and keep his plotting sons from deciding England’s future for him. Of his three suitable male heirs – Richard (Anthony Hopkins), Geoffrey (John Castle), and John (Nigel Terry) – Henry prefers John, and hopes to pass on his crown to him. However, his estranged wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katherine Hepburn) must be present for negotiations taking place with King Phillip II of France (Timothy Dalton) and she has every intention of using the opportunity to steer her favourite, Richard, towards the throne.
France must be appeased in order to maintain the empire that Henry has fought his whole life to establish, but to do so may also mean losing the love of his late age – his mistress Alais, half-sister to King Philip, who has been promised in marriage to one of Henry’s sons. The film is an adaptation by James Goldman of his own play, and so it’s no surprise that the life and breath of its cinematic iteration comes from sterling performances by O’Toole, Hepburn, and the rest of its magnificent cast. They have a sharp script to enjoy and a rich Oedipal psycho-drama to unpack. The use of location shooting in and around French castles and estates lends that extra sense of grandeur to proceedings, and makes this film a real gem.