A review requested by Geoffrey Moses, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

I have mentioned before, and I shall mention in the future, that one of my most vulnerable weaknesses as a moviegoer is for anything that foregrounds hyper-literate insulting dialogue delivered with sufficient vigor and acidity by top-notch actors, and we have before us one of the giants of the form. While the all-time masterpiece of catty barbs, All About Eve, is an exercise in slipping your enemies a poisoned verbal cocktail or stabbing them between the ribs with a witty stiletto, the #2 film in the genre, The Lion in Winter from 1968, is more like charging at your opponent with a battle axe made of words. And wielding those axes, we find an unfairly qualified battalion of high-end talent: Katharine Hepburn (winning her third Oscar, and richly deserving it - the only one of her wins I'd co-sign, in fact), Peter O'Toole (nominated for an Oscar, of which he was unfairly robbed), a very young Anthony Hopkins, an even younger Timothy Dalton, and the less-famous but no less talented John Castle, Nigel Terry, and Jane Merrow. It was adapted by James Goldman from his own play, which explains why the bitchy dialogue in this case is so florid and theatrical, and in principle I try not to give movies credit for things that their source material was responsible for; but principles are made to be bent. Besides, if not for the movie, we wouldn't have a record of all those amazing people saying those amazing words.

The Lion in Winter is a commanding blend of the high and low, a thoroughly sordid family melodrama designed for over-literate history buffs. It covers three fictional days in the life of Henry II England (O'Toole) and his estranged wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (Hepburn), on 24-26 December, 1183, the tenth year of Eleanor's imprisonment at Henry's behest for encouraging their eldest living child, Henry, Duke of Normandy, Count of Anjou, and titular King of England to rebel against his father with the aid and support of his next two brothers. "Estranged" is a happy, pleasant word for the relationship of Henry II and Eleanor, maybe. At any rate, Eleanor is only permitted a semblance of freedom once a year at Christmas, and 1183 is a particularly special occasion: the son Henry died over the summer, leaving the throne of England without a presumptive heir. Strict primogeniture would dictate that the couple's third son, Richard (Hopkins), should be next in line, but Henry's rage against his wife and her betrayal has extended as far as both of the boys she raised prior to her imprisonment - Geoffrey (Castle) is the other - and the only heir he wants to anoint is John (Terry), a pimply teenager who was just seven when his parents had their row. As everybody up to and including Henry can tell, though, John is a sullen idiot. And that is the collection of fun interpersonal relationships about to be uncorked for the holidays in Henry's castle on the Continent, with some flavoring added by the fact that Henry is making noise about marrying off his favorite mistress, Alais (Merrow) to one of his sons, and the young King Philip II of France (Dalton), a friend of Richard, and the son of Henry's late nemesis Louis VII, who was also Eleanor's first husband.

The basic character relationships are right, the rest is all so much bullshit, and that's in no small part why The Lion in Winter is both compulsively watchable and so damn good. On the one hand, you have pure, tawdry melodrama - a straight line can be drawn from this film to The Tudors, with plenty of layovers in between - with the monstrous Henry and the reptilian Eleanor manipulating the three sons they both despise against each other, as an entirely obvious proxy for the kinky sex they'd be having with each other if they weren't both so proud and hateful. It's cackling, nasty stuff, and it plays - dear sweet Jesus, it plays as well as anything ever has. The scenes are stuffed full of Medieval political esoterica, with a huge part of the drama consisting of nothing but two characters conspiring as to how they shall fuck over a third, but the barely-contained soap opera malevolence everybody feels towards everybody else pierces through the costume drama with roaring 20th Century lust. But there is also the politicking itself, and that's the flipside to Goldman's amazingly fleet writing: this is probably the best history lesson on the screwy mechanics of English dynastic politics produced by modern pop culture. Not, admittedly, a fiercely competitive race. But it's maybe the most impressive thing about The Lion in Winter. What we have before us is nothing less than the 20th Century's best and perhaps only attempt to do new Shakespeare: for what are Richard III, Henry IV, and their kin, but skillful marriages of complex interpersonal dramas about political wrangling with broad-strokes comedy and tragedy thrown in for sheer entertainment's sake? Not that The Lion in Winter is the equal of Shakespeare (though I'd rather watch or read it than have anything to do with the three Henry VI plays ever again), but the impulses that drove him are readily found in this mixture of grubby, trashy populism (with a singularly anachronistic bent - these are 20th Century people using Olden Tymes dialogue, not earnest depictions of humans alive nearly 800 years prior to Goldman) and nuanced, largely fact-based if not strictly "factual" depictions of the chronicles of English history.

But again, that's all on The Lion in Winter as a written piece, not as a movie, and I will concede that it is not a perfect movie. Despite the filmmakers' best attempts, led by second-time director Anthony Harvey, this isn't a terribly persuasive depiction of 12th Century Anjou. The costumes are too crisp, despite concerted efforts to beat them up; the walls are too clean, with soot stains that were obviously placed there by set decorators. The crowns are obviously base metal, the swords are obviously blunt. Aye, it gets a lot closer to historical realism than the utterly fluffy fantasies made in America and England in the '30s and '40s, but it is an act of pure charity to pretend that this looks like anything but make-believe. And the problems extend past the physical mise en scène: oddly, considering Harvey's previous career as an editor, the film cut together rather indifferently, and not to the discredit of editor John Bloom, but as a clear result of the material he had to work with. A character bending down to the left in close-up is facing straight ahead in a subsequent medium shot, and more than once, the 180° rule is broken with a giddy freedom that would earn a failing grade in any film school. We can look at the 1968 release date, and timorously suggest that this was part of the new cinematic freedom enabled by the various New Waves and their disregard for bourgeois conceits like continuity; but The Lion in Winter is a profoundly bourgeois entertainment if it is anything.

The good news is, none of that matter, since what he fumbled in setting up the camera angles, Harvey more than made up for in managing his actors. Let's hold onto that for a second; it's worth pointing out that, however ineffectively they cut together, the individual images tend to be really good here. Douglas Slocombe's cinematography is remarkably subtle and graceful in adding a dirty haze that greatly benefits the drama and the setting, making everything seem just a tad less lit than we'd suppose it would be if this was just some Hollywood megaproduction. Plus, the camera movements, if you can get behind the gleeful late-'60s addiction to zoom lenses, are mesmerising, especially the ones that push towards Hepburn to sell just how effortlessly her character dominates the waking thoughts of every person she comes into contact with, and how little she gives a shit about any of them. I am particularly fond of the visual punctuation to her great little speech about how she'd never have been saddled with Richard, Geoffrey, or John, if only she'd been able to produce even one boychild for Louis - "such, my angels, is the role of sex in history" she beams sardonically, as Slocombe powers towards her face, blocking out everything but her withering confidence.

Harvey and Slocombe, it is plain, love Katharine Hepburn. So did O'Toole; the actors were friends and her idolise her before this, their solitary collaboration, but he at least respects the greedy self-regard of his character enough to make her work for her share of all their scenes, and that is a beautiful thing. O'Toole's breast-beating, British-stage-trained hamminess rips the material one direction, Hepburn's ice-cold pseudo-friendly Mid-Atlantic tones calmly, implacably pull it back, and the conflict between their two inherently different styles, their inherently different ways of occupying the space in front of the camera lens, fuels so much more of the antipathy between Henry and Eleanor, as well as the fascination they hold for each other, than the script could ever do on its own. It is as successful an exercise in watching what happens when two acting generations come into contact as has ever been filmed.

But I was talking about Hepburn, and how, other than O'Toole, everybody is desperate to hand the movie to her on a platter. Her introduction is on the back of quasi-religious chant centered on her character's name, the most ecstatic passage of John Barry's generally bombastic score, as she glides into the story on an elegant skiff like a latter-day Cleopatra. And while the film relies extensively on close-ups to get into the screaming red menace behind everybody's eyes, there's something just more, I don't know, overawed about the close-ups Hepburn gets. Not that she doesn't deserve it! This is one of the greatest triumphs of her career, certainly the best work she did in the nine features and eight telefilms she made after lover and frequent co-star Spencer Tracy died right after they finished working on Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and right up near the level of her best work as one of the '30s and '40s Hollywood's most fascinating stars (if often one of its more ill-used). It's no secret that she took the role to distract herself from Tracy's loss, and she funneled all of her grief into tearing into Goldman's meaty script like a big cat ripping apart a cheetah: there are so many tremendous line readings and tiny acting choices in every one of her scenes that I could triple the length of this review just describing them all. I'll limit myself to one of my favorites, from early on: after having greeted Henry with a plastered-on but apparently sincere smile, she spots Alais, and the expression on her face... I can't come up with a better word than to say she reboots, like there's a brown-out for the span of just two or three frames during which she goes all slack; not sad, not angry, not even surprised, she just needs to take a quick breath and launch back into an equally plastered, far less sincere toothy grin.

Her performance is one of the two pillars that The Lion in Winter towers atop: not that the supporting cast is lacking in any way (I particularly like Terry, who plays the rage of an idiot who knows that he's an idiot especially well, and Hopkins's gutted reaction when Richard finds his homosexual ardor for Philip has been betrayed is one of the all-time highlights of the actor's legendary screen career), but the story is about Henry (the titular lion) and Eleanor, and everything else simply gets caught up in their gravitational pull. It is the story of two people who used to love each other, and now hate each other, and not-quite-secretly find that their hate is even more erotically intense than their love ever was. It is about knowing that you will never have the kind of companionship again that you only ever thought you had; it is about finding more pleasure in lashing out at the one person who got under your skin than finding ways to move beyond the pain they caused you. It is one of the great depictions of a toxic, but still weirdly functional marriage that has ever been filmed, and as much as fan-casting new versions of this script is a perpetual hobby of mine, I cannot imagine any two people ever inhabiting these roles and this mutually destructive dynamic better than Hepburn and O'Toole. The Lion in Winter has too many mistakes and shortcuts at the level of raw craftsmanship to be a singularly great film, but these actors, these characters, and this dialogue are a sufficiently potent combination to make it one of the most essential pieces of English-language cinema ever produced.