It's hard to believe Glenn Close would agree to star in a remake of "The Lion in Winter" and doom herself to comparisons with Katharine Hepburn.
Until you see her in the role, that is. And then you understand that the fierce Close is there to out-act Hepburn, who won an Oscar for her formidable, crowning performance in the 1968 version. Close is there to dazzle us with her chops, to turn Hepburn's fiendishly clever Eleanor of Aquitaine into a volcanic acting showcase. She's there to blow us away with her showy displays of teary hatred, consuming envy, glaring indifference, and any other emotion that's red-hot and bubbling over.
And she nearly succeeds, if you don't mind a little bullying. While her effort smacks of compensation, to erase the feeling she's falling short, she is an undeniably colorful force in the movie, which premieres Sunday at 7:30 p.m. on Showtime. Her arch, ironic faces, and look-at-how-tragic-I-am breakdowns make the exceedingly long ride -- at 2 hours and 37 minutes, it's 22 minutes longer than the original -- much more fun than it would be without her.
And Close's overacting isn't really inappropriate. "The Lion in Winter" is a stagey, theatrical vehicle that calls for outsized performances. Not only did it originate as a play in the style of Shakespeare, but it's fueled by an unusually talk-driven screenplay that has the characters jogging about a castle shooting verbal darts at one another. And what sharp darts they are. The Showtime movie uses James Goldman's original Oscar-winning screenplay, which was based on his play. It remains a brilliant mass of cruel sarcasm, elegant lyricism, character revelation, and political intrigue.
Set in 1183, the story finds aging King Henry II (Patrick Stewart) choosing his successor from among his three sons -- the tormented warrior Richard (Andrew Howard), the scheming Geoffrey (John Light), and the idiotic John (Rafe Spall). In order to announce John as the winner, Henry brings his wife, Eleanor, out of captivity, where he has kept her for a decade to prevent her from staging more coups against him.
All together for Christmas, the royal family becomes a hissing snake pit of accusation and manipulation in a shadowy French castle. It's as if we're watching a Freudian training film, between Richard's unresolved Oedipal struggles and the brothers' brutal sibling rivalry. Meanwhile, Eleanor and Henry play out their own power struggle, a lightning-fast battle of wills that's as droll as it is openly ferocious. Their combat is littered with lines such as this one, delivered like a statement of fact by Close: "Henry, I have a confession: I don't much like our children." Ultimately, theirs is a tragic war, as they pick through the wreckage of their ruined lives.
As Henry, the enthusiastic Stewart is more blandly heroic, and less perversely decadent, than Close. He makes Henry's mind games easy to follow -- too easy, at times, particularly when he uses his young paramour, Alais (Julia Vysotsky), and her fertility, to torture Eleanor. He's missing a layer of darkness, and that harms the chemistry between the actors. While Close projects the intellectual sparring of "Dangerous Liaisons," Stewart has a tinge of action movie in his manner.
Still, the script's the thing in "The Lion in Winter." The familial loyalties and deceptions turn on a dime, and the rhythms of the dialogue trump the acting flaws. You're still better off renting the original, which features one of Hepburn's greatest performances. But while the Showtime version didn't need to be made, it's a grand reminder nonetheless that they just don't write them like this anymore.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.