Based on the hit Broadway play by screenwriter James Goldman, Anthony Harvey’s The Lion in Winter (1968) ruffled a few feathers while performing well with audiences and critics alike. Landing just outside the top 10 box office earners that year, this massively entertaining historical drama was nominated for seven Academy Awards and features an outstanding cast of talented veterans and newcomers alike (including Anthony Hopkins, making his big-screen debut). The excellent production design, a mixture of sets and location footage, gives The Lion in Winter a larger scope than its story actually delivers: this tale of outlandish family drama lies mostly within the chateau of scheming Henry II (Peter O’Toole) and concerns members of his family and inner circle. Its formidable presence is anchored squarely by magnetic performances, not to mention a heaping portion of treason served with a dash of contemporary flair.
But first, introductions all around. It’s Christmas 1168, and Henry II is in a particularly giving mood: he just let his estranged wife Eleanor (Katharine Hepburn) out of prison to help decide which of their three surviving sons will inherit the throne and his current mistress Alais (Jane Merrow), graciously “donated” by visiting King Philip II of France (Timothy Dalton, also making his debut). Eleanor favors their eldest son Richard the Lionheart (Hopkins) for the throne — not just due to his cool name, but for his considerable military experience. Henry, on the other hand, prefers their youngest son John (Nigel Terry), who’s a highly educated young man but not well-liked otherwise. The middle child, Geoffrey II (John Castle), is best remembered as the namesake of their first son who died years earlier.
Despite its relatively lean cast of featured players, The Lion in Winter juggles a lot of balls in the air and does an admirable job of keeping things lightweight but substantial. Betrayal is the name of the game here: not only does Henry and Eleanor’s love-hate relationship contribute to much of the drama — their feelings for one another change, on average, once per scene — but a series of plots between the brothers adds plenty of intrigue along the way. Very few people get away clean and, while there’s hardly anyone to root for, it’s a kick to watch all the drama unfold during the film’s deceptively brisk 134-minute lifespan. In other words, twist and turns largely outnumber the degrees of moral growth here: only a few revelations elicit any kind of true sympathy for some of the more unlikely characters, with at least one brother bearing the brunt of unwarranted hatred from a cold, distant, and extremely charismatic father.
Aside from its highly committed performances, The Lion in Winter‘s most obvious strengths include the aforementioned production design and a memorable score by the prolific John Barry, not to mention fantastic dialogue — it’s easy to lose count of of the brutal one-liners. Contemporary flair makes The Lion in Winter extremely accessible for new audiences, especially those expecting a stuffy historical drama devoid of humor and self-awareness. These are only a few charms of a film that’s turning 50 years young this October: to celebrate, Kino’s new Blu-ray attempts to please established fans while introducing this great film to a generation of new ones. While it’s far from a definitive release in any department, the strength of the main feature is enough to earn it an easy recommendation.
Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer is a fairly solid effort that easily eclipses MGM’s 2001 DVD release. Don’t expect perfection, though: while advertised as a “4K restoration” (but from what source material?), the end product lacks some of the strength and clarity you’d expect from a film of this pedigree. Image detail is solid during outdoor scenes and in some close-ups, while black levels and shadow detail also hold up decently enough in dim light. Textures and color saturation appear natural with no apparent bleeding or excessive noise reduction. Overall, though, there’s a slight but noticeable lack of punch: it’s obviously a few steps up from anything standard definition is capable of producing, but not quite the “night and day” difference that most will be expecting for a major catalog release on its 50th anniversary. Don’t get me wrong: casual fans — and even those who have seen The Lion in Winter on different formats — will be pleased to have any upgrade, but there’s still some room for improvement here.
DISCLAIMER: The promotional stills and screen captures on this page are decorative and do not represent the title under review.
Unlike most epic historical dramas from its era, The Lion in Winter was recorded in mono and thus never afforded a true multi-channel presentation. That didn’t stop Kino from trying, however: this Blu-ray includes an exclusive new DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track that attempts to wring out every bit of sonic detail…but like the video presentation, doesn’t quite deliver the goods. The end result of this remix isn’t all that impressive: in most cases, all three front channels pump out the same audio with a slight delay for the rears. This does produce a bit of space that’s somewhat appropriate for scenes of dialogue in large rooms, but can’t help but sound artificial since there’s no discernible front channel separation (characters on opposite sides of the room still sound boxed in, etc.). In all honesty, it’s not all that much more effective than what most receivers are capable of pumping out with a bit of creative tinkering.
Luckily, the original mono track is presented in DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio as well — so if you’re as underwhelmed with the remix as I was, you needn’t be stuck with it. No matter your choice, the dialogue is cleanly recorded with no obvious damage, drop-outs, or glaring sync issues, although the volume levels tends to fluctuate in some scenes. Optional English subtitles are included during the film.
Kino’s interface is smooth and simple, with well-organized content and a very colorful poster-themed front cover that’s somewhat similar to the image seen above-left. The 134-minute main feature is divided into a modest eight chapters. This one-disc package arrives in a standard keepcase with plain gray disc art and a promotional booklet highlighting several dozen recent Kino titles.
The only new extra here is a short Interview with Sound Recordist Simon Kaye (10:22); topics of discussion include the film’s original mono mix, meeting the director, location scouting, overdubbing in post-production, working around Anthony Hopkins’ broad Welsh accent, interacting with Katharine Hepburn, watching cast auditions, award nominations, and more. Die-hard fans with region-free players may already own the reasonably priced 2016 Region B Blu-ray from Studio Canal — it instead features four interviews with actors John Castle, Anthony Hopkins, and Peter O’Toole, as well as editor John Bloom. Sadly, those interviews have not been included here.
Two items are carried over from the 2001 DVD: a feature-length Audio Commentary with director Anthony Harvey, as well as the film’s Theatrical Trailer. Overall, a fairly underwhelming set of bonus features, especially compared to that UK Blu-ray linked above.
Anthony Harvey’s adaptation of James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter remains a hugely entertaining mix of historical drama with a heavy seasoning of contemporary flair. The dialogue and performances are off the charts and backed by solid production design, a terrific score by John Barry, and more than enough drama to keep new and returning fans happy from start to finish. I hadn’t seen this one in years but it’s held up exceptionally well — so whether you’re intrigued by the deep cast or soapy subject matter, there’s a little something for everyone here. Sadly, Kino’s 50th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray feels like a missed opportunity: the A/V presentation is good but not great, and the meager bonus features don’t even include a few noteworthy items from Studio Canal’s 2016 Region B Blu-ray. Die-hard fans should hunt down that disc instead, but this one’s passable enough for everyone else. Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes, and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.