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Dusty: We’re jungle creatures, dear Readers, and the dark is all around us. See them? In the corners, you can see the commenters’ eyes.
Director: Anthony Harvey
Writer: James Goldman
Stars: Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins, John Castle, Nigel Terry, Timothy Dalton, Jane Merrow
Release Date: October 30, 1968 (United States)
Run time: 2 hour, 14 minutes
The Lion in Winter is set during Christmas 1183, at King Henry II‘s château and primary residence in Chinon, Touraine, in the medieval Angevin Empire. Henry wants his youngest son, the future King John, to inherit his throne, while his estranged and imprisoned wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, temporarily released from prison in England for the holidays, favours their eldest surviving son, the future King Richard I. King Philip II of France, the son and successor of Louis VII of France, Eleanor’s ex-husband, is a guest. His father had made a treaty with King Henry giving Philip’s half-sister Alais, who is currently Henry’s mistress, to be married to Henry’s future heir, and demands either a wedding or the return of her dowry, which is a strategically important area of land.
As a ruse, Henry agrees to give Alais to Richard and make him heir-apparent. He makes a deal with Eleanor for her freedom in return for Aquitaine, to be given to John, with Richard marrying Alais. When the deal is revealed at the wedding, Richard refuses to go through with the ceremony. After Richard leaves, Eleanor masochistically asks Henry to kiss Alais in front of her, and then looks on in horror as they perform a mock marriage ceremony. Having believed Henry’s intentions, John, at the direction of middle brother, Geoffrey II, Duke of Brittany, plots with Philip to make war on Henry. Henry and Philip meet to discuss terms, but Henry soon learns that Philip has been plotting with John and Geoffrey, and that he and Richard were once lovers.
Henry dismisses all three sons as unsuitable and locks them in a wine cellar, telling Alais, “the royal boys are aging with the royal port.” He makes plans to travel to Rome for an annulment of his marriage to Eleanor, so that he can have legitimate new sons with Alais, but she says he will never be able to release his sons from prison because they will be a threat to his future children. Henry sees that she is right and condemns them to death, but cannot bring himself to kill them, instead letting them escape. He and Eleanor go back to hoping for the future, with Eleanor returning on the barge to prison, laughing it off with Henry before she leaves.
[Note: Before I get into the actual review, I want to first comment on the rating. This is a PG movie, however, there is some profanity throughout as well as a lot of adult themes. I suspect that in the present day it would get a PG-13 rating.]
The Lion in Winter is a masterpiece. That said, it is difficult to pin down what the film is about. Is the heart of the story the political intrigue? Is it the family dynamics? Is the script a drama or a comedy? Is the film cynical? Is it hopeful? The answer to all of those questions is yes. Can a film be all of those things and also be enjoyable? Again, yes.
The pseudo-historical period piece was filmed on location in France and in Wales, and it details a fictional palace intrigue and family drama that takes place almost entirely on Christmas Eve in the year 1183, during the reignof Henry II of England. In this early era of the English monarchy, the King still encountered chickens in his courtyard and some of the floors were still dirt floors. That lack of too much opulence worked well within the context of the story. Inasmuch as the family depicted in the film is as irreverent and dysfunctional as can be imagined, the earthy abundance was befitting their characters.
King Henry and Queen Eleanor are married, though both have committed adultery many times each. One on-going barb between the two is the question of whether Eleanor ever cheated on Henry with his father. Eleanor is imprisoned, though she is now temporarily released to spend Christmas with her family – and to perhaps also sign over lands in Henry’s negotiations with the King of France. Henry has a mistress, Alais, who has transitioned into this role after being something close to a daughter figure, as she was raised in his palace. Despite this relationship, Henry contemplates marrying Alais off to one of his sons to further his own political legacy. He plans to do this while maintaining her as his mistress. Henry had previously promised the King of France that Alais, Philip’s sister, would marry his heir, when she is of age, and now Philip, is visiting to see that this promise is kept. Philip also has a personal history with Henry’s son Richard – a homosexual encounter / relationship that may or may not have included rape by Richard. King Henry is also debating whether or not to have his marriage to Eleanor annulled so that he can marry Alais and through her, acquire a better heir than any of his current options. At the root of nearly every damaged relationship are more universally relatable questions about love and the way that selfish ambition interferes with love. As a result, despite the glut of fights, and the royal context, the family conflict is at least in this way relatable.
The political intrigue of the film is that Henry cannot choose an heir. He is unhappy with all three of his sons and worries that his life’s work, and legacy, will be for nothing if left in their hands. Richard is “the best” of the sons, but is not only homosexual, a significant issue in 1183, but perhaps more inexcusably to Henry, Richard is more innately loyal to Eleanor than himself. Richard’s history with the King of France further complicates his claim to the throne of England. Meanwhile Geoffrey the middle son is unloved by both of his parents, and seems somewhat sociopathic. He asks throughout why neither of them have affection for him while also seeming to know the answer and to not be bothered by it. We see him scheme with everyone. The youngest son, beloved by Henry, is John, though John is dim-witted, prone to treason, and may be loved by Henry due to lack of other options. Throughout the course of the film, all of the characters, save Alais, contemplate each other’s murder while simultaneously craving each other’s affection. Henry’s worry over the protection of his own legacy is easy to understand, as are the competing actions of his sons. Henry decides that his best option is to start over, to annul his marriage to Eleanor and have new sons and heirs, but eventually decides this is not a good option, as he cannot be certain to live long enough to protect a new heir until he is able to protect himself. He also decides he cannot tell any of his current sons that they will never see the sunlight again. We see here where political calculation pushes up against and relents to familial feelings.
The acting performances carry this film. Peter O’Toole is terrific as the bombastic and conflicted Henry II. Anthony Hopkins, as Richard, and Timothy Dalton, as Philip, give memorable performances also. The star of the movie is, in my opinion, Katharine Hepburn. Her Eleanor clearly loves her husband while also loving their relationship-injuring political duels just as much. She loves and is repulsed by her sons while also demonstrating an easy willingness to use them, and protect them, in her intrigues against Henry. She is proud, strong, conniving, brittle, and despite all of that, deeply sympathetic. She delivers brazen shock humor lines in one scene, and she breaks down and weeps in another. I cannot imagine any other actress pulling off this role and Hepburn won one of her Oscars with this character.
If there’s another star of the film, it is the dialogue itself. The subject matter of this story is difficult, and the characters are unkind to each other, but the film’s heart emerges in its spoken lines. There we find the comedy, wit, and love that lives alongside the film’s often ugly plot action. Here are some of my favorite lines:
Eleanor: Love, in a world where carpenters get resurrected, anything is possible.
Richard: [the sons, in the dungeon as Henry approaches] He’s here. He’ll get no satisfaction out of me. He isn’t going to see me beg.
Geoffrey: My you chivalric fool… as if the way one fell down mattered.
Richard: When the fall is all there is, it matters.
Eleanor: I adored you. I still do.
Henry II: Of all the lies you’ve told, that is the most terrible.
Eleanor: I know. That’s why I’ve saved it up until now.
Eleanor: What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?
Geoffrey: I know. You know I know. I know you know I know. We know Henry knows, and Henry knows we know it. We’re a knowledgeable family.
Henry II: Hmmm?
Eleanor: I have a confession.
Henry II: Yes?
Eleanor: I don’t much like our children!
Eleanor: Henry’s bed is Henry’s province. He can people it with sheep for all I care, which on occasion he has done.
Henry II: Rosamund’s been dead for seven years…
Eleanor: …two months and eighteen days. I never liked her much.
Henry II: You count the days?
Eleanor: I made the numbers up.
Eleanor: Her eyes in certain light were violet, and all her teeth were even. That’s a rare, fair feature: even teeth. She smiled to excess, but she chewed with real distinction.
Henry II: We’re in the cellar and you’re going back to prison and my life is wasted and we’ve lost each other… and you’re smiling.
Eleanor: It’s the way I register despair. There’s everything in life but hope.
Henry II: We’re both alive… and for all I know that’s what hope is.
That last bit of dialogue is the heart of the film. I enjoy the movie, a lot, but I readily admit it is odd. Perhaps the most odd moment in the film is its ending, which follows shortly after Henry’s musing on what hope is. As Eleanor waves to Henry from her ship, on her way back to prison, Henry waves too and comments that he hopes they both live forever. He then laughs manically. In addition to being strange, the scene is a comment on the lives of the characters, and I think it is also a comment on humanity more generally. Eleanor returning to her prison is nothing short of desperate and tragic. She is crushed to return there and Henry is deeply pained to send her. Yet she and Henry deal with this tragedy by pretending in that moment that their parting is a brief pause in a fun game that they will soon resume, and then play forever. Henry’s maniacal laughter causes us to question whether he is sane in this hope to which he clings, but as the alternative is death, insanity comes across as the more noble choice.
By providing this odd ending, the film refuses to give us newly grown and changed characters. The story is one concerning damaged people and they part just as damaged as when we met them. That damage is the point. The message of the film is that people are terrible, legacies are fleeting, but also that there is something to be loved or admired even in the worst people. Henry, Eleanor, and we in the audience can find solace and hope in the idea that they will have more encounters in the future. Perhaps one of those will end in a better way. The audience can decide on their own whether that is a sufficiently sane basis for hope. As a comment on human behavior, in the face of turmoil, there is something quite authentic in that. Authenticity notwithstanding, you might prefer that they could go to therapy instead.
If you enjoy movies with terrific acting, well-written scripts, and messaging that leaves you in thought, then I recommend you give The Lion in Winter a viewing.