Starring Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins, John Castle, Nigel Terry, Timothy Dalton, and Jane Merrow
My rating: ★★★★ stars
Outstanding historical drama features strong characterizations and dynamic performances.
If one were to make a list of the top ten film actors of all time, Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole would likely be on it. While Anthony Hopkins might not make it into that rarefied group, he’d certainly be high up on anyone’s list of great film actors. Throw in Timothy Dalton, Nigel Terry, and John Castle, and The Lion in Winter is a treat for anyone who enjoys performance.
The film pairs O’Toole with Hepburn as Henry II of England and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine. O’Toole, at the time, was a relatively recent arrival on the screen, having made his film debut only eight years earlier, but he had already racked up more outstanding performances than most great actors have in a career. Hepburn had been on the big screen for more than 35 years, turning in impressive performances, one after the other. Films had changed from the time Hepburn made her debut to when O’Toole made his, but they both shared something essential in common that made their pairing in this film succeed: theatrical training.
The Lion in Winter is a very theatrical film. Unlike many movies set in the medieval period, it’s not a film about action, vistas, sets, or costumes. It’s essentially a chamber piece, where Henry and Eleanor fight over which of their three surviving sons—Richard (Hopkins), Geoffrey (John Castle), and John (Nigel Terry)—will be king when Henry dies, as he must eventually to his great chagrin.
The acting style required is not the naturalistic one that we are accustomed to today, nor is it typical of classic Hollywood where the personalities of the performers were of primary concern. The film depends on actors being able to recite immensely quotable lines with rhythm and aplomb and to present unnaturally heightened emotions without coming off as absurd. In short, it is an acting style that is far more theatrical than cinematic. It’s no surprise then that Hopkins and Dalton, who plays the teenaged king of France, Philip II, with their background in the theater, turn in dynamic performances in their film debut alongside cinema veterans O’Toole and Hepburn.
With the exception of a few introductory scenes that “open up” the drama, most of the film takes place over the course of two days during the Christmas holiday at Henry’s castle at Chinon in France. (At the time, despite being king of England, Henry controlled most of the western half of France, while Philip, the king of France, controlled an area that included little more than the twenty-mile radius around Paris.) The drama doesn’t come from great battles or deeds but from characters and their twisted and dysfunctional relationships with one another. Throughout the film, alliances are formed and broken, plots are hatched and foiled, secrets are revealed, hearts are broken, and the past is rehashed from so many conflicting perspectives that it loses all sense of meaning.
Even viewers who aren’t familiar with history may know from Robin Hood or other legends who becomes king after Henry dies. The story of valiant King Richard the Lionheart and his weasely brother, Prince John, is well known. In this film, Richard, however, is less valiant than the legends make him out to be—though, John is, as a teenager, much as we would expect him to be, a “cretin,” as Philip describes him. Geoffrey of Brittany is not a well-known figure from history. He predeceased Henry and left little historical mark, but the script, adapted by James Goldman from his own play, uses his obscurity to its advantage. It makes Geoffrey into an enigma. None of the other characters seem to understand or notice Geoffrey, allowing him to scheme on his own and seethe about his lack of recognition. In pop psychology terms, he’s a typical middle child (the Jan Brady of the Plantagenets*).
In the film, Henry talks about how he created an empire as great as Charlemagne’s, and those unfamiliar with history may not understand what he is talking about. The Angevin Empire, after all, lasted only one generation. At the time the movie takes place, Philip of France is only a teenager, but he already shows promise as a political schemer and the man who will chip away at Britain’s lands in France, eventually taking most of it from the feuding brothers Richard and John. Dalton plays the role with great intelligence but also suggests resentment, tinged with adolescent petulance, at being the lesser of two kings in his own country.
All the characters maneuver and manipulate with intelligence, except for poor, sniveling, cretinous Prince John and hapless Princess Alais (Jane Merrow), Henry’s mistress, Philip’s sister, and Richard’s fiancée. Or, sometimes John’s fiancée, depending on which son is favored in any particular moment. She’s traded back and forth, told what to do, and generally treated as property throughout the film, which was typical of the treatment of women at the time.
But Eleanor of Aquitaine was an exception. According to history, she directed her own destiny despite her position as a mere woman. Here, she is Henry’s prisoner (she led too many civil wars against him), and she still manages to scheme and direct action. Hepburn, even though she wasn’t British, was an ideal choice to play this powerful, independent, notable woman. She won her third of four Oscars for the role and deservedly so.
The Lion in Winter was the second time O’Toole had played Henry II; the first time, he gave an Oscar-nominated performance in Becket (1964), about an early scandal in the reign of King Henry, the murder of Thomas a Becket. Here, just four years later, he plays a much older version of the king. Even though he was only 35 (just five years older than Hopkins who plays his son), he presents a wearier, beaten down figure, who, nevertheless, proves to have a hidden and never-ending supply of vigor when he needs it. O’Toole received an Oscar nomination for this performance, as well, but lost to Cliff Robertson (Charly).
The movie was filmed at Montmajour Abbey in France and gives a sense of what castles in the Middle Ages were probably like—cold, filthy, barren, uncomfortable, and filled with animals, which also act as a metaphor to indicate the uncivilized behavior of the human inhabitants of the castle. But the sets are minimal. The film lacks pageantry, except for the majestic score by John Barry, and focuses, instead, on character.
I’ve often taken exception to the oft-repeated axiom that film is a visual medium. I considered it, as Orson Welles described it, primarily a narrative medium. The Lion in Winter, despite its being well-received in its time and the fondness classic film fans have for it, is not often cited by the critical establishment as one of the great films of the late 1960s. It lacks the ground-breaking, revolutionary cinematic innovation of films like 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Graduate. Yet, with its focus on character and narrative over novelty, it holds up better, proving more unfailingly watchable, than its more celebrated contemporaries.
*The Plantagenet dynasty wasn’t named until after Henry’s death, but, in the film, Henry calls himself a Plantagenet.