Anthony Harvey, the director of The Lion in Winter, is one of only a handful of editors who have overcome the film world’s rigid caste system to direct a feature. (Others include David Lean and Alain Resnais. Note that none of these men are American. In Hollywood, crossing professional boundaries is harder than just about anywhere else.) It is Harvey’s skill in the cutting room that enables him to keep this consciously anachronistic theatrical adaptation moving forward, involving, even compelling.
Editors are the unsung heroes of film production. Quietly laboring in the background to work footage to its highest potential, good editors are effectively a director’s right hand man (or woman, for many of the best film editors have been women). Used to working almost literally in the shadows, editors exult in competence, not display. It is therefore not surprising that most editors who become directors do not indulge in obvious, showy cuts. True to his training as a classical editor, Harvey’s cuts put the viewer at the right spot, at the right moment, without calling attention to the process. He keeps things moving, not in the sense of an artificially imposed pace, but by always giving the viewer exactly what he or she needs to know at that moment while exciting the curiosity to know what happens next.
This skill with movement and pacing helps us forget some of the more awkward aspects of the film. For example, Peter O’Toole as Henry II was 36 when Winter was made, while Katharine Hepburn (as his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine) was 61. Anthony Hopkins, who plays their son Richard was 29. It is certainly a credit to the actors that they are believable as a family, but their success also demonstrates Harvey’s ability to immerse us in the dramatic moment, unconcerned with such oddities.
Editing’s contribution to performance is one of the biggest differences between cinematic and theatrical acting. The latter is a matter of splendid, fearsome isolation in front of an audience hostile or sympathetic, but always human. The film actor must deal not only with the camera’s dull, mechanical stare. Even after he is “done,” his performance is at the mercy of the editor. Someone like Harvey, used to choosing the best takes, the most effective angles, the most emotionally appropriate moments, is well suited to polish performances to maximum brilliance. That he has also directed those performances in Winter assures the actors will be shown to best advantage.
When Nigel Terry as Prince John whines that if he caught fire no one would try to put it out, and Hopkins replies “Let’s strike a flint and see,” the line isn’t particularly witty. It is the attitude that puts it across. If the actors are the primary attraction in The Lion in Winter, that doesn’t diminish Harvey’s contributions. He transmutes the performers’ emotional intensity into the pushing, forward drive that we expect from the movies. In the process, “actors’ cinema” becomes “editors’ cinema.” Or maybe it’s the other way around.