Historical drama film review, pt 2 of ?: The Lion in Winter

Why can’t I find any good covers in English? Whatever, here’s the German version

For the second film in this historical drama review series, it’s a festive one. A family Christmas movie, what could be nicer than that? Except this is about possibly the worst, most uncomfortable family Christmas holiday in history.

The Lion in Winter, directed by Anthony Harvey and filmed in 1968, is an adaptation of a stage play about King Henry II of England, his wife Queen Eleanor (aka Eleanor of Aquitaine), their three sons, Richard, John, and Geoffrey, and the fate of Henry’s Angevin Empire, stretching throughout England and much of modern-day France. Over Christmas 1183 near the end of his long reign, Henry calls his three sons to his main base of operations in Chinon for a feast, also sending invitations to Queen Eleanor (locked away in a castle after she tried to overthrow him) and King Philip II of France. The purpose of this feast naturally isn’t just to eat and get drunk and celebrate Christmas, but really to resolve the question of succession and sort out some long-running territorial disputes with the French king.

Henry wants his favorite son John to inherit his throne, but he knows he won’t have his way easily. The French king has his own demands to make, both relating to lands held by Henry bordering his own and the status of his sister Alais, currently Henry’s mistress but promised to marry the future English king in exchange for a dowry. But Henry’s greatest rival is his wife, Eleanor, who wants Richard as king instead. Despite her status as a woman in medieval Europe, not the best time and place to be a woman, Eleanor was famously formidable and influential, a political match for Henry, and years of luxurious imprisonment in a castle seem to have made her all the more determined to get her way instead.

The Lion in Winter is a legendary film and rightfully so. There’s a massive amount of acting talent here, from the leads Peter O’Toole as Henry and Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor to the supporting cast Anthony Hopkins as Richard, Timothy Burton as Philip — the two guys I’m more familiar with — and John Castle as Geoffrey, Nigel Terry as John, and Jane Merrow as Alais, the three I’m not so familiar with. They’re all excellent, most of all O’Toole and Hepburn, who get the opportunity to depict two giant personalities and do such a great job that it’s hard not to imagine the two as the real Henry and Eleanor if I ever read about them outside the context of this film (and O’Toole also played a younger Henry II in Becket, so he’s absolutely confirmed as Henry anyway.)

The quality doesn’t stop at the acting — the script is near-constant scheming and counter-scheming, broken up by a few excellent monologues and one unexpected fight scene at the very end, but all gripping. The score is great as well, from the opening theme (I know “Dies irae” but the rest of the Latin is over my head, extremely fitting though) all the way to the ending.

I highly recommend The Lion in Winter to anyone. You don’t have to have any background in medieval European politics to get what’s going on in the film; it’s all explained, and even though it involves politics and war, it’s really a family drama. If you thought the British royal family in the 21st century was dysfunctional, they’re nothing compared to how they were in the 12th. Once again I can’t speak much to the historical accuracy of the film, though this time it doesn’t feel like it matters so much. It’s more historically accurate than Disney’s Adventures of Robin Hood anyway, and that film was the only exposure I had to Plantagenet England as a kid.*

I don’t have much personal experience to tie into the film this time given the fact that I’m not English or French nobility and wasn’t around anywhere close to 800 years ago, so I’ll leave it there. Watch this movie, there’s my judgment. There was a remake released in 2003 starring Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close, and while they’re both also excellent actors, it’s hard to imagine anything living up to the original. But maybe it’s good too. Hard to imagine it’s not, considering Stewart and Close and the quality of the script.


* For a look at how influential that movie apparently was, when I ran a search for The Lion in Winter in Google I got this:

Let’s set aside the fact that Audrey Hepburn wasn’t in the movie (yeah, it’s confusing her with Katharine for some reason — both great actresses but come on Google.) King John gets so little respect that he doesn’t even get a proper portrait, instead being relegated to his pathetic lion form from Robin Hood. I’d say poor guy, but he was a shitty king anyway. Though his brother Richard wasn’t the best king either from the accounts I’ve read, so whatever. History gets all mixed up with myth and legend, especially after 800 years.

But fun fact: Henry II was responsible for a lot of legal reform in England following the general assholishness of William I and his kids and the Anarchy that followed Henry I’s death, to the point that he helped establish a lot of the English common law that American legal standards are based on. That was certainly a step up in terms of kingship, but it also means he’s the reason our profession is so full of weird old Norman French and why I had to learn about the fucking confusing fee tail in Property that nobody uses anymore. Thanks Henry.

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