When we think of Christmas, we usually think about presents and family and friends all gathering together. Not often do we associate the festive season with “politics, vengeance, greed and ambition” but The Lion in Winter somehow brings it all together with its cutting cinematography and deliciously wicked screenplay. The excellence achieved by Anthony Harvey simply cannot be ignored in this magnificent period film.
We are transported back to 1183 where King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) has invited his estranged wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn) to his Chinon château for Christmas. Also present at this reunion are their sons Prince Richard (a very young Anthony Hopkins), who later becomes Richard the Lionheart, Prince Geoffrey (John Castle) and Prince John (Nigel Terry). The friction that exists within this family are quickly exposed as the family all plot against each other with the princes each vying for the throne. Both Eleanor and Henry have their favourites and tensions rise to a new level when Richard also plots with a young Phillip II of France (Timothy Dalton). Eleanor continues to torment her husband in revenge for exiling her but he resists by continuing his affair with Alais (Jane Merrow), his much younger mistress. As each son’s true intentions become clearer to Henry, his bitterness increases leading to an emotionally charged climax that is bound to leave viewers in shock.
It may come as a surprise that the original play opened to lacklustre reviews when it debuted on Broadway, yet the film won a trio of Oscars including one for James Goldman’s razor-sharp screenplay. The script is biting and unforgiving as well as deeply thought-provoking. The complex relationships between the characters are far from loving and you see them grappling between their instinctive affection for one another as well as a lust for power. It’s also a delight to see Peter O’Toole reprise the role he played in Beckett as he exploits the savagery of Medieval Britain, whilst also masterfully conveying the king’s anguish and inner-conflicts. Much acclaim too must go to Anthony Harvey whose direction brings out the best in the talented cast and presents audiences with a challenging but rewarding story.
And then there’s Katharine Hepburn, whose tour-de-force performance won her an unprecedented third Best Actress Oscar. She would of course win one more for On Golden Pond and she still holds the record for most acting Oscars in history with 4 Academy Awards for Best Actress. The unmistakable Hepburn-esque accent is not masked by a faux English/French accent even here, because, like her long-time romantic partner Spencer Tracy, Hepburn doesn’t need to “act”. Once she’s in front of a camera, she burns up the screen with her naturally vivid New-England persona. She brings a degree of suspense and rage in Eleanor but doesn’t compromise the intense wit of her character either. Eleanor of Aquitaine remained one of Hepburn’s favourite roles and whilst she is not particularly likeable, audiences can’t help but feel drawn to the Machiavellian queen.
As the film celebrates its 50th anniversary, it would seem that there is a need to revisit this now often overlooked gem. Katharine Hepburn on her own makes the film worth watching but when you add James Goldman’s screenplay and Anthony Harvey’s vision, it’s certainly a surprise to me that The Lion in Winter is not already considered a Christmas classic.
by Carlos Tseng