‘THE LION IN WINTER’ is a ‘Titus Andronicus’ for the 20th century—a chronicle of eloquence and depravity, of majesty debased through jealousy, made petty by hate, and left squirming like worms in the dirty despair of revenge. That these are no common folk—rather royalty plucked from history, played by actors of great stature—makes their tragedy all the more grating. Few immaculate idols endure in modern society, from politics to religion, and more clear-eyed assessments of history’s greatest figures often reveal them to be vice-riddled schemers, but the pedestaled prejudice of history remains, heightened by the centuries and raising such names as King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine to a nearly mythic plane. ‘The Lion In Winter’ preys upon these idealized forms, showing divine right monarchs and their children to be no better than any materialistic, vengeful celebrity family on reality TV today. Indeed, the cabal of King Henry is a far sight worse.
Yet a certain grandness endures, and that is why we watch. Henry’s castle may be squalid but it is a castle still; his children may bicker over their inheritance, but that inheritance is England. And instead of eye-rolling heiresses and chest-thumping media moguls, we behold Katharine Hepburn, Peter O’Toole, and Anthony Hopkins, no less magnificent for the venom they spit. These are titans making poetry out of curses, their eyes dead, lips curled, and hearts numbed but bleeding. Their mordant soliloquys are broken up into a semblance of dialogue, barreling along as if each line were fated, with discourse replaced with punishment. But not forever, thankfully. What begins as a masochistic history lesson eventually boils over into epic character drama that animates the film’s second half beyond the capacity of any textbook.
Peter O’Toole reprises his role as Henry II, previously played in 1964 against Richard Burton in ‘Becket’. In both films O’Toole is a magnificent shouter, consumed by his own ego, striving to be good at one turn without acknowledging his brutality at another. Yet in this latter picture his Henry is a haunted, haggard creature, swarmed by scavengers instead of dogged by a single worthy adversary. His high brow, manicured hands, and regal bearing from ‘Becket’ have been overtaken by a wiry-haired, creased veteran whose hooded eyes pierce through every artifice but his own. Though vital and full of vinegar, he totters about his castle with stiffening joints, and by the denouement that finds him and Eleanor huddled in their cellar, staring down invisible jungle eyes in the corners, he is a pallid ghoul. Hepburn, meanwhile, won the Oscar for her Eleanor—still elegant at 61 and deftly wielding her remaining guile even as it fades. She is a rose content to show her thorns, for they will last longer than any petal.
Eleanor and Henry argue fantastically, clashing against one another with magnificent sparks, but it is their son Richard (Anthony Hopkins) who is this film’s emotional anvil. He is cold, contemptuous, utilitarian in his perspective and rigid like an iron rod. Brittle like one, too. Impassive until his melting point, he then erupts into wild-eyed catharsis that is pitiful like a child’s. Aside from the biddable and rather drippy Alice (whom Henry loves but plays with as a pawn), Richard is the only character whose agony is not of his own doing. Hopkins’ natural gravitas also serves to balance his doltish brother John, a gape-mouthed bumbler who provides the film’s offhand comic relief. Geoffrey, the forgotten middle son, is the stolid fulcrum between them, rather diffidently addressed and an unresolved presence in the script and on screen. The lone outsider in this family affair is also the cast’s hidden gem: Philip II of France, played by Timothy Dalton with appropriately vernal majesty. With limited screen time he is an uncanny reflection of O’Toole’s own Henry II from ‘Becket’, right down to the noble cheekbones and roguishly thin beard.
The first half of the film is full of these characters’ tired expositions and the rattling off of stations and purposes to bring the audience up to speed: the hierarchy of sons, twisted treaties, et cetera. This slightly didactic process also makes us keenly aware of whose designs are trod upon by whom and whence came the seeds of malcontent germinating in every heart. Once the scheming settles into place, each carefully watered bed bursts into bloody blossoms.
That moment occurs in the chambers of King Philip, where each of Henry’s sons hides from the next until they all are brought out by an unexpected visit from King Henry himself. The sequence could easily have been a slapstick farce (or ‘Hamlet’ satire), and Philip’s wry observation that hiding is “what tapestries are for” implies the writers were aware of how dangerously they played catharsis against comedy. But the scene is crucial and ultimately well-handled, revealing Philip’s extraordinary position in this web of intrigue, catalyzing the explosion that consumes Henry’s family, and setting off an hour’s worth of increasingly dire consequences that leaves Eleanor at last wondering, “How did we come to this?” Regrettably, once that fallout begins Philip himself is quite abruptly cut out of the story with hardly an effort to reconcile him in the larger picture of the plot.
A second and considerably more damaging sudden shift is the film’s incongruously peppy coda. The king and his wife, newly emerged from their emotional nadir and the literal depths of the cellar, promenade arm in arm to see Eleanor back off to her prison up the river, chatting gaily, dropping some trite rhetoricals about living forever, and then laughing in that uncomfortably long way common to cinema of the 1960s. Even allowing for this the final impression is queerly misshapen, like a ‘happily ever after’ clipped from a fairy tale and glued onto a tragedy by a disconsolate young reader.
This contrast is a microcosm for the film entire, wherein every relationship is one of love and hate. Such ineffable and complex bonds do exist in life, of course, and likely were all the more charged in feudal times when life and death were so immediate. But sometimes ‘The Lion in Winter’ strives too mightily towards profound ambivalence, such as when Alice confesses to Eleanor, “All I want for Christmas is to see you suffer,” before promptly collapsing into the queen’s embrace, weeping. On the whole our credulity is stretched a little too far, and the emotional pendulum swings a little too precipitously for it to find a steady purchase on our heartstrings. So while ‘The Lion In Winter’ remains a memorable film and a worthy tour de force for several of its stars, it is more in homage to themselves than to their lords and ladies.