(With the Oscars scheduled to be awarded on March 4th, I have decided to review at least one Oscar-nominated film a day. These films could be nominees or they could be winners. They could be from this year’s Oscars or they could be a previous year’s nominee! We’ll see how things play out. Today, I take a look at the 1968 best picture nominee, The Lion in Winter!)
“I don’t much like our children.”
— Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn)
“Oh God, but I do love being king.”
— King Henry II (Peter O’Toole)
“What family doesn’t have its up and down?”
— Eleanor of Aquitaine
To be honest, it’s tempting to just spend this entire review offering up quotes from this film. Based on a play by James Goldman and featuring a cast of actors who all specialized in delivering the most snarky of lines with style, The Lion In Winter is a film that is in love with the English language. As visually impressive as the film and its recreation of the 12th Century is, it’s tempting to close your eyes while watching The Lion In Winter and just listen to the dialogue.
The year is 1183. England has a king. His name is Henry II (Peter O’Toole) and he’s held power for a long time, through a combination of willpower and political manipulation. He’s married to Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn), though he long since had her imprisoned. Before marrying Henry, Eleanor was the wife of Louis VII. Now, Henry’s mistress is Alais (Jane Merrow), the daughter of Louis and his second wife. In order to get Alais’s dowry, Henry has promised her half-brother, Philip II (Timothy Dalton), that she will be married to the next king of England. Philip, incidentally, is the son of Louis’s third wife. To be honest, it’s confusing as Hell to try to keep up with all of it but that’s medieval politics for you.
Of course, everyone knows that Henry II will not be king forever. He’s already 50 years old, which is quite an advanced age for 1183. Being king means that everyone, even his own family, is plotting against him. It also means living in a remarkably dirty and drafty castle. (If you’re looking for a film that celebrates the splendor of royalty, this is probably not the film to watch.) Henry has three sons, all of whom feel that he should be the rightful heir.
For instance, there’s Richard (a young Anthony Hopkins). Richard is Henry and Eleanor’s eldest son. He is a fierce, outspoken, and judgemental man. He describes himself as being a legend and a poet. He looks and acts like a future king. Of course, he’s also a bit of a pompous ass. Richard is Eleanor’s pick to be king, though Richard is always quick to equally condemn both of his parents.
And then there’s John (Nigel Terry). Early on, John is described as being “pimply and smelling of compost.” For some reason, John is Henry’s favorite. He’s also a sniveling weakling, the type who is never smart enough to know when his father is being honest or when his father is bluffing. Halfway through the film, he comes close to accidentally starting a civil war.
And finally, there’s Geoffrey (John Castle). Geoffrey is the smartest of the princes and the most manipulative. Of the three princes, he’s the only one who is as smart as both Henry and Eleanor. However, whereas Henry and Eleanor enjoy their complicated lives and manage to maintain a sense of (very dark) humor about it all, Geoffrey is bitter about his place as the middle child.
Christmas has arrived and Henry has temporarily released Eleanor from prison so that she can spend the holidays with him, his sons, and his mistress. Also coming over for the holiday is King Phillip II, eager to either take back his sister’s dowry or to attend her wedding to the next King of England. What follows is a holiday of politics, manipulation, and shouting. In fact, there’s lots and lots of shouting.
It’s a thoroughly enjoyable film, one that expertly mixes British history with domestic drama and dark comedy. Obviously, the film’s main appeal comes from watching two screen icons, Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn, exchanging snappy dialogue. Hepburn deservedly won an Oscar for her performance as Eleanor. O’Toole should have won an Oscar as well but he lost to Cliff Robertson for Charly. In fact, O’Toole and Hepburn are so good that they occasionally overshadow the rest of the very talented cast. Anthony Hopkins and Nigel Terry both make indelible impressions as Richard and John but my favorite princely performance came from John Castle, who is a malicious wonder as Geoffrey. As easy as it is to dislike Geoffrey, it’s hard not to feel that he does have a point.
(Of course, in real life, both Richard and John would eventually serve as king while Geoffrey would die, under mysterious circumstances, in France. Reportedly, Philip II was so distraught over Geoffrey’s death that he attempted to jump on the coffin as it was being lowered into the ground.)
The Lion In Winter was nominated for seven Oscars and won three, for Best Actress (Katharine Hepburn), Best Adapted Screenplay (James Goldman), and Best Music Score (John Barry). It lost best picture to Oliver!