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'The Lion in Winter' shows a holiday family hoe-down worse than yours

Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn lord over a 1968 medieval romp with no interest in decorum.
The Lion in Winter

Katharine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole's Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II only pretePhotofest

‘The Lion in Winter’
Director:
Anthony Harvey
Stars: Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn
Rating: NR
4 (out of 5) Globes

“How dear of you to let me out of jail.” There are times when this 1968 medieval barn-burner plays like a sitcom. “Borscht-Belt Shakespeare” snipped Don Druker in his old Chicago Reader capsule. Sounds fun to us. Blindingly glazed Christmas ham that’s still fresh after 50 years, James Goldman’s play-turned-film is a pastiche of classical theater, but with all the pleasantries scrubbed — like Eugene O’Neill with all the knives out. Eloquence has curdled into one-liners, politeness into sarcasm, Machiavellian ruses into harebrained schemes that peter out soon as their plotters have one of their characteristic changes of heart.

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Like almost any old movie revisited in 2016, “The Lion in Winter” now looks vaguely prophetic, the timing of its reissue accidentally perfect. Its message: and you thought your Christmas family hoedown would be bad. Peter O’Toole’s Henry II, reprising a role he’d done on screen in “Beckett” four years earlier, wrassles over dense court intrigue with his three differently awful sons (Anthony Hopkins, John Castle and Nigel Terry), his much younger mistress (Jane Merrow) and Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn), his estranged queen, whom he’s granted a brief holiday furlough from her 10-year prison stint. She emerges as though no time has passed at all, pouncing and meddling and quipping her way to her actor’s deserved third of four Oscars. Hepburn’s trophy was split with Barbra Streisand for “Funny Girl,” but Eleanor could have eaten even Fanny Brice as an hors d’ouevre.

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The combo of O’Toole, rarely more wound-up, and young Hopkins ensures this is one of the great “quiet quiet quiet quiet quiet LOUD LOUD LOUD quiet” movies ever made. Every other actor is on their own planet. Hepburn plays it cool, all smiling daggers and moments of grace you can never tell are sincere or what. Timothy Dalton, as scheming Philp of France, smirks deviously, and allows modern viewers the thought of James Bond and Hannibal Lecter reminiscing over an old tryst. They mix it up, and the period piece has rarely been less stuffy, less constrained — even with direction, from old Kubrick editor Anthony Harvey, that’s closer to traffic cop work than a real vision. It doesn’t need any more than that. It simply requires the space for Hepburn, doting over the potentially doomed boys she raised but did not bear, to tell them, “Take your wormwood like a good boy.” And certainly unlike your own forthcoming holiday family gathering, these hellions learn that fighting is what brings them closer together.

"The Lion in Winter" plays at New York's Film Forum through Dec. 27. Visit the site for showtimes and tickets.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge