After sifting through various calls and notices asking me to promote yet another casting call for yet another reality series, it was refreshing to receive a release that, even in its conventional nature, inspired a brilliant glow of anticipation. There are several buzz-worthy elements attached to this project: a strong script by an award-winning writer; a producer who has been called the last TV impresario; and actors, fine actors, who not only lend a sense of prestige, but blissfully propel the project to gleeful heights. All these elements come together successfully in the Showtime film The Lion in Winter.
Now, before you sniff, "Oh, a remake," or insist this film is not worth sacrificing a Sunday evening of your precious reality TV, hilarious home video, or tired rerun of a long-toothed franchise for, please, take a look. You won't be disappointed.
The script is by Oscar-winning scribe James Goldman, adapted from his stage play, and is the same script used for the 1968 film starring Katharine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole. While some will compare the two films and judge the latter harshly, my recommendation is: Compare if you must, but this version stands solidly on its own.
The Lion in Winter could cloyingly be called a dysfunctional family Christmas. Set in England in 1183, the film centers around King Henry II, (Patrick Stewart) who is concerned with who will assume his throne and who decides to summon his family for the holidays to make the announcement. In attendance are his three sons each more thankless and conniving than the next. But none comes close to their mother, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (Glenn Close). Of course, she has reason to be bitter. Her husband has kept her under lock and key following the unsuccessful coup she participated in 10 years earlier. Oh, and there's that business of him taking up with a woman the queen practically raised as her own daughter, not to mention the countless others that's when they were happily married.
What makes The Lion in Winter so absorbing is Goldman's crackling dialogue. Though some complain of its contemporary ring, it's not as off-putting as, say, the dialogue from A Knight's Tale.
As the estranged royal couple, Close and Stewart are superb. Watching their verbal jousting is pure joy, even in some of their more emotionally wrenching moments. While The Lion in Winter is a story of a family poisoned by ambition and greed, it is also a story of a man and a woman who respect, and perhaps even love each other in spite of their history. It's a story of children desperate for parental approval and of parents whose children break their hearts, all of which collides in a war of old wounds that are as fresh as the day they were inflicted. If it all sounds suspiciously like an afternoon of family drama on Ricki Lake, not to worry. In lesser hands, The Lion in Winter could easily veer into chest-banging melodrama. But Ricki's guests never sound as witty or heartbreakingly raw as Goldman's unforgettable characters.
Andrew Howard, John Light, and Rafe Spall co-star as the royal sons Richard, Geoffrey, and John. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers stars as Phillip, the King of France, whose sister Alais (Julia Vysotsky) is Henry's lover and a pawn in the power struggle between the wily old strategist and the worthy opponent he finds in Phillip. Andrei Konchalovsky directs.
The Lion in Winter premieres Sunday, May 23, at 6:30pm on Showtime. An encore airs Friday, May 28, at 7pm. Check local listings.
Recently released on DVD is the first season of Gilmore Girls. Twenty-one episodes come on the six-disc set, including the requisite special features, one of which is a sit-down interview with the show's quirky creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino, who explains the accident that would become The Gilmore Girls. After a pitch meeting and seeing the glazed-over looks of the WB execs, Palladino offered a vague idea about a mother and daughter who are more like friends. The WB execs jumped on that, and Palladino was thrilled. The only problem was, she didn't have any idea what that show was since she'd made it up on the spot. Other insider morsels include the fact that Alex Borstein (MADtv) was originally cast as Sookie St. James. The part of the accident-prone chef was recast with Melissa McCarthy because Borstein could not get release time from another show, though she shows up early in the series as the Independence Inn's hilariously rude harpist Miss Celine.
Speaking of Unconventional Families
Gilmore Girls: The Complete First Season is available on DVD from Warner Home Video. Total running time is 945 minutes, and retail price is $60.