The Lion in Winter
by Jon Bastian
It should have been called Who’s Afraid of Eleanor of Aquitaine, but it’s definitely worth a look.
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Anthony Harvey’s 1968 film of James Goldman’s play, The Lion in Winter, is one of those instances in which an entire gang of incredible actors is unleashed on volatile, literate material, creating screen fireworks that synergize into a whole that is truly greater than the sum of its parts. Not that the parts are at all shabby — Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton, among others, bring to life some of the most famous people in British History. You may have heard of them, or not, American education being what it is: Henry II Plantagenet, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard Lion Heart, King John Lackland. Yeah, all those obscure, forgotten people who lived in that post-Norman Conquest century in which the fortunes of England and France were inextricably linked, only to become much more complicated in the next century.
At the same time, The Lion in Winter is simply a portrait of an incredibly dysfunctional family. If these folks had been around now, they would have wound up duking it out on Springer, or at least having all their dirty laundry aired in the National Enquirer. “Husband Imprisons Wife for Ten Years!” “King Seeks Papal Intervention so He Can Marry His Mistress!” “Brother Against Brother Against Brother as Battle for the Throne Ignites!” What keeps it all from just being a scandalous romp is, first, the history and literacy of the script and, second and most of all, the performances on display.
Our story takes place during Christmas, 1183, when the entire family assembles at their castle in Chignon, France, ostensibly for Henry II (Peter O’Toole) to announce his heir while parlaying with the French King, Philip II (Timothy Dalton) over an old territorial dispute. It seems that, years ago, Henry arranged for the French princess Alais (Jane Merrow) to marry one of his sons. This was only a ruse, though. Henry has taken the young woman as his own mistress. That was fine and dandy under the former king, but newly ascendant Philip, an impatient seventeen year-old, wants Henry to put up or shut up and arrange that marriage now. You see, Alais came with a dowry that includes extensive lands in France, and if she isn’t going to get hitched to an English heir, Philip would like his property back, merci beaucoup.
Complicating matters: Eleanor and Henry’s eldest son died during the summer, leaving the question of who will be the next king undecided. Eleanor (Katharine Hepburn) favors bold, warring Richard (Anthony Hopkins) while Henry favors, for reasons fathomable to no one but himself, the slovenly, somewhat dimwitted, sixteen year-old John (Nigel Terry). Stuck on the sidelines is their other son, Geoffrey (John Castle), who feels that he is loved by no one and ignored by everyone, and so schemes against them all.
The family gathers and the fireworks begin almost immediately as Henry and Eleanor bicker in a love-hate relationship like no other. It seems that Henry has a habit of screwing around. So does his wife. But, since Henry is the king, he’s been able to confine Eleanor to house arrest for the past decade, keeping her walled up at his pleasure in a castle in Salisbury, only trotting her out for official occasions or big holidays.
Henry and Eleanor certainly know how to push each other’s buttons as they play an escalating game of “who’s winning now?”, each trying to force the other into accepting their favored choice of heir. Meanwhile, the boy-king of France takes advantage of the situation and, as we find out in a scene that must have been the first act finale of Goldman’s play, was not at all adverse to offering a bit of tail in exchange for future political gain. What Philip does almost makes Henry look like an amateur and, indeed, the revelation of Philip’s conniving leads directly to Henry’s dark night of the soul.
Of course, if you know history, you know that Richard eventually won the heir battle, sort of, and that Eleanor outlived Henry (the first king from the House of Plantagenet) by quite a long time. Even if you don’t know history, you probably know that King John was one of England’s biggest screw-ups, being forced, as he was, to sign that Magna Carta and give away a lot of kingly power to the local barons. Along with Richard III, he’s one of Shakespeare’s most vilified English monarchs. So onerous were his failings in the job, in fact, that there has been no other British king since with that most common of Anglo-Saxon given names. Plenty of Richards and Henrys, but not a single John since that famous date at Runnymede. (Which was 1215, in case you went to public school.) I think the name may have even been banned by an act of Parliament. As for the rest of the family, Richard went on to become the king known as Lion Heart (not “the Lion-Hearted” and actually given his nickname in French), but then spent all his time running off to the Crusades, resulting in his spending more time as a hostage of another venal monarch than as king of his own country. Geoffrey, the most conniving of the brothers, died during a jousting tournament three years later. If his character as depicted here is at all accurate, he probably would have made the best king of the bunch.
In the final act of the film, the action ratchets way up, as Henry has to face the results of an angry proclamation regarding his errant sons. Since it was witnessed by another king, he has to stick to it, but the question of whether he can actually deal with the emotional reality of the action he has taken drives the latter half of the movie.
Despite Peter O’Toole playing the titular lion, this is without a doubt Katharine Hepburn’s show, a performance for which she won her third Oscar (shared, for only the second time in Academy history, with Barbra Streisand). But what else can you expect when you have arguably the greatest living American actress take on one of history’s greatest women? It’s a bigger than life role inhabited by a bigger than life performer, and Hepburn is utterly compelling every second she’s on the screen as she plays a dangerous game of plot and politics with her husband. Despite being much younger at the time (she was sixty-one; he was thirty-six) O’Toole keeps up with her, and their scenes together are sheer dynamite. The kids are no slouches, either. This was only Anthony Hopkins’ third appearance onscreen and, for post Silence of the Lambs Hopkins fans, this performance is quite a departure. Far from being his usual invulnerable super-genius, here he plays a quite human, vulnerable, fragile character. He hasn’t yet developed the incredible technique for which he’s become known, but he’s still got that certain something onscreen which says “future superstar.” As conniving brother Geoffrey, John Castle also shows that certain something, but he never became a big star over here, his career being mostly confined to BBC adaptations of the Great Works of English Literature. Nigel Terry’s role is somewhat thankless, Prince John being depicted mostly as a sniveling little git, but it did earn him a later role as England’s most famous never-was King, Arthur, in Excalibur.
Timothy Dalton seems far older than his years as Philip. He was twenty-three at the time, playing seventeen, but in his scenes with O’Toole, he holds his own, displaying a sleek, mercenary quality that has rarely shown up in his later roles. Finally, Jane Merrow is touching as the King’s mistress, a woman who knows that she will be most useless if she is ever elevated to the role of Queen as long as the King’s other sons still live. Yes, it’s hard to believe that someone with her beauty and Breck Girl hair could have actually existed in 12th Century France, but she does bring the right nuances as innocent victim of palace intrigue to the affair.
If there are any failings to The Lion in Winter, they’re in the script, and it’s a minor quibble. Sometimes, it’s hard to believe that these people could actually say and do the things they do to each other. They’re harsh. They’re evil. They’re nasty. Then again, they’re battling over one of the world’s most important empires in the middle of the Dark Ages. Still, for all the accusations, recriminations and poison darts aimed at each other’s hearts, The Lion in Winter could also have been called Who’s Afraid of Eleanor of Aquitaine?, complete with its obligatory, “Eleanor, we don’t have three sons!” scene. And yes, you will be waiting for Henry to pull out that shotgun, aim it at Eleanor and fire off a parasol. Then again, he practically does do this, although his weapon of choice is a sword, not an anachronistic rifle.
At the very end, this is where the film does stumble, in showing the influence that no doubt colored the creation of the play that gave it birth. For all the battling and bickering that came before, Henry and Eleanor part ways with the big hint that this whole thing has been their holiday business as usual, to be repeated once more when Eleanor is paroled at Easter. (There’s no clear indication in the film how long their eldest son has been dead, hence no indication to the audience that maybe this is a unique event.) Since we must know history to know who ultimately won the battle, the film itself feels somewhat unresolved, with no internal indication as to which of the sons, Richard or John, is now front-runner as heir and future king. Eleanor climbs onto her barge and sails back to England, and we’re left with a shot of Henry, seeming almost invigorated by the entire adventure.
But this is a minor quibble, really. If you want to see great actors chewing up and spitting out great material as they spar with each other in a life-or-death struggle, then The Lion in Winter, newly released on DVD, is a good choice. It’s a unique opportunity to see Hepburn and O’Toole at the top of their games, and Hopkins and Dalton at the very beginning of theirs. And, at the very least, you might learn a little bit of history while you’re at it. To his credit, James Goldman manages to sneak the history lesson into his script very subtly, albeit accurately, so that the learning business is quite harmless. Who knows. Maybe, afterwards, you’ll be compelled to learn more about Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of history’s most famous women, or maybe even check out Becket, in which Peter O’Toole also played Henry II, at the other end of his long reign.
All of this without any CGI or fancy effects. In fact, the only special effects on display here are the not inconsiderable talents of a bang-up cast — which are, after all, worth a hundred times their weight in all the ILM pixels in the world.
Jon Bastian is a playwright, screen and TV writer living in his native Los Angeles. Like Katharine Hepburn, he is a direct descendant of Eleanor & Henry II, although he did it the hard way, through one of that infamous King John’s many illegitimate children.
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