THE LION IN WINTER, 1968
It is 1183, and Henry II of England, welcomes his estranged and exiled wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, to his court for Christmas. Over the course of Eleanor’s visit, the couple battle over the succession to the throne and which of their three sons should inherit it. As the holiday continues, so do the power games between the king and his queen. Eventually their sons join them in plotting each other’s downfall. All are equally ambitious. After a short, tumultuous time together, and with very little resolved in the way of actual arrangements for the succession, Henry says goodbye to Eleanor, as she returns to her castle prison.
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Peter O’Toole bears the distinction of being one of the very few actors to have played the same character in different movies, and been Oscar nominated for both performances. His first turn as Henry II was in “Becket” (1964), a historically ambitious film which dramatized the great church/state conflict embodied in Henry’s ruined friendship with Archbishop Thomas Becket. “The Lion In Winter” is ambitious in its way, but has no real interest in a large historical narrative, even as it relies on the historical frame offered by the dynastic squabbles of two great monarchs, Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. The movie is an adaptation of James Goldman’s 1966 Broadway play of the same name. It was a notable failure on the stage, presumably due to Goldman’s unexpectedly irreverent, and at times, flippant take on this subject matter. Goldman’s main dramatic idea reduces to an acerbic take on marital breakdown, infidelity and all the scheming implicit therein. He then stretches this conceit out on the framework of a grand historic power struggle, but the references to duchies, kingdoms and threats of war are never really the point. In essence, Goldman creates the equivalent of a high medieval version of a later film, “The War of The Roses” (1989); a darkly comic take on a couple willing to battle to the death over the spoils of their marriage.
Goldman adapted his play for the screen version and his dialogue is witty and sharp, but is at times a bit too epigrammatic for its own good. Henry and Eleanor’s conversations are frequently amusing but with often only a glittering surface effect, as witnessed in this exchange between them. It begins with Henry’s question to his wife:
“Do you truly care who’s king?”
“I care because you care so much.”
“Don’t fight me Eleanor.”
“What would you have me do? Give up, give out, give in?”
“Give me a little peace.”
“A little? Why so modest? How about eternal peace, now there’s a thought.”
The film is full of brittle exchanges like this, which then segue into big, emotional set piece confrontations between the principals. The story swings between these two dramatic poles, and it manages to work well as a showcase for two great actors. Both O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor, rise to the occasion with relish. Peter O’Toole was still a young man when he played the aging Henry depicted here. However, O’Toole has no problem convincing us of his authority in the role, and thus Henry’s authority over all he surveys. Watching this film, it’s hard to believe only four years had passed since his performance as the young, headstrong Henry of “Becket”. This older, tougher Henry is still headstrong, but O’Toole makes it clear he can no longer be hurt in the same way. He is now a man who is weighted down with a very definite past. As the story progresses, O’Toole evinces a real depth of emotion that is welcome after all the theatrical bickering between Henry and Eleanor.
Katharine Hepburn was already a screen legend by the time she came to this project. She therefore has no problem personifying the imperiousness required to bring to life this great queen. Eleanor of Aquitaine was a woman who had been, at one time or another, Queen of France, Queen of the English and Duchess of Aquitaine. She had borne ten children to two kings and outlived all but two of them. She endured 16 years imprisonment at the hands of her second husband, Henry. In short, she is one of European history’s most extraordinary women and since there is something extraordinary about Katharine Hepburn that defies easy categorization, she seems almost inevitable in this role. Equally, although she is surrounded by British actors, there is always something ineffably American about Hepburn - her energy, her vocal intonations, and yet her uniqueness only adds to Eleanor’s distinction amongst her scheming tribe. Most importantly, she has a terrific rapport with O’Toole as Henry. They match each other note for note, both in the scenes requiring sharp comic timing for their barbed repartee, as well as effortlessly switching gears to pull off the deeper emotional episodes.
“The Lion In Winter” features a number of first time screen performances from actors who would go on to have major careers. Anthony Hopkins makes his screen debut as the eldest son, Richard and is good but a little bland. He hits the required emotional notes. However, the commanding screen presence he would develop later in his career is not yet in evidence. Timothy Dalton is handsome and believably crafty as King Philip of France.
Cumulatively, the story of Henry and Eleanor and their sons does build to an emotional climax that has power due to the skill of the actors. Anthony Harvey, then gives O’Toole and Hepburn an exit scene that is pure movie star emoting. There is no real emotional logic to it, according to all that we have just witnessed, but at the same time it fits. It works because after watching Goldman’s treatment of the relationship between Eleanor and Henry, we realize that his essential view of them is as two great, narcissistic performers who make their entrances and exits on the various stages he has set for them. Anthony Harvey largely gets this, but at times his take on the material is confusing. He seems to want to endow this material with more weight than Goldman has allowed for in his writing. The use of tonally dark Gregorian chant throughout the film, for instance, is out of place here. As well, the dramatic shifts in tone from the comic to the more demanding scenes are often abrupt and at times it feels like we’re watching two different movies.
“The Lion In Winter” is a great vehicle for two powerhouse actors in the lead roles. It demands nothing less, and this version survives as a wonderful record of memorable performances from two of the great actors of the classic era.