This week, we were intending to watch the Patrick Stewart/Glenn Close 2003 made-for-TV version of The Lion in Winter, but sadly it was not to be found. So we settled…for the Oscar-winning original (best actress, best original score, best adapted screenplay) – The Lion in Winter (1968) directed by Anthony Harvey.
The film is based off of a 1966 play by James Goldman, and one can only imagine that Mr. Goldman was a bit influenced by Edward Albee. Because if you really wanted to describe this film, you would just say that it was “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” transported from modern suburbia into medieval English royal politics. The comparison is quite apt.
Here we see King Henry II, the first ruler in the Plantagenet dynasty and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine. They love to fight, to scheme, and to plot against each other. It’s their greatest joy, and they’ve got plenty to argue about. Perhaps the fundamental basis of argument is the fact that Henry is keeping Eleanor locked up in a castle in England while ruling from France. (Hey, it’s what they did in 1183 A.D. The year.) He lets her out every once in a while because he needs some entertainment at Christmas Court, which is a fancy word for a holiday party at a castle where everybody gets together and has the privilege of eating on rickety picnic benches. Keep in mind that these picnic benches are pretty much the nice furniture of the richest and most powerful family in the northwest of Europe. Things have changed a bit.
Henry and Eleanor are also fighting over Alais, Henry’s open mistress. As you can imagine, Eleanor’s not terribly happy about the situation, being locked up in a castle and passed over for a girl 25 years her younger. What’s even worse is how Henry drones on and on about how beautiful Alais is. She’s really not all that and a bag of chips. Umm, crisps. Then again, this is 1183 and when the King’s best furniture is picnic benches, perhaps Alais really is the best-looking woman in the country.
Of course, that’s not all of the intrigue at Christmas Court. We’ve got the young King Philip II of France (baby Timothy Dalton), who has apparently been invited so that he can air his own grievance, and that is this: Alais is his sister and was shipped off to the Plantagenets as a child with the agreement that she was to be betrothed to young Richard (baby Anthony Hopkins). Somehow she has gone from princess and the wife of the presumed heir to the throne to the current King’s mistress, and this is not really an acceptable outcome for Philip.
Of course, whether or not Richard is truly heir to the throne is yet another bone of contention. Eleanor, for her part, favors Richard.
But there’s also young idiot John, who for some godforsaken reason is Henry’s choice as successor. Really, this seems like a bad idea, given that John is a simpering borderline moron. Then there’s the middle child, Geoffrey. He’s the most intelligent of the bunch, he’s the most handsome of the bunch, he’s the most polite of the bunch, and neither of his parents seem to recognize that he exists. So he’s also the most scheming of the bunch, playing everybody against each other in his best attempt to gain power. But he’s never really in the running – it’s a two-man race between the worthy Richard (in the sequel: Richard the Lionhearted) and the pretty-much unworthy John (in the second sequel: John the Usurper and ultimately King John, who was so awesome that there hasn’t been another King John in 800 years). It would appear that historically Henry II favored John because he was the only one not involved in a revolt against him – indeed that’s why Eleanor was locked up in the castle. But that falls outside the scope of our film – here we only deal with an unresolved, and certainly heavily fictionalized power struggle.
It’s pretty convoluted as they all fight for what they want (each of the sons to be King; Eleanor for Richard’s candidacy; Henry II for John’s candidacy; Philip for whatever alliance/land benefits would presume to come from Alais’s marriage to a prince; Alais for legitimacy). Things really come to a head in Philip’s quarters, where Mr. Goldman quite outdoes Shakespeare in the category of characters hiding behind tapestries. Geoffrey comes in to scheme with Philip, only to draw out John from behind a tapestry. When Richard arrives to scheme Geoffrey and John hide behind another tapestry, and when moments later Henry arrives to scheme Richard hides behind his own tapestry. Philip is pretty comfortable with all of this – he is James Bond, after all – and the upshot of the whole scene is that John is exposed as a schemer despite his father’s belief that he was faithful to him and Richard is exposed as a buggerer (the one-time lover of Philip himself). Both are clearly unworthy of the throne at this point, and of course, nobody loves Geoffrey.
So Henry locks them all in a dungeon and intends to head off to the Pope to get his marriage to Eleanor annulled so that he can marry Alais and produce another male heir. Alais points out that he’s going to have to kill his other sons to do that – he’s an old man and won’t be able to protect her and his heir from them. Realizing that he doesn’t have it in him to kill his sons, Henry just drops the whole thing and sends Eleanor back to her castle at the end of her vacation. I’ll be damned if they aren’t both really happy about this.
It’s a weird film, really. Nothing is resolved, Philip just kind of disappears, and the only thing that is really established is that Henry doesn’t have the constitution to kill his own children. The thrust of it is taken up by a couple who glory in arguing with and scheming against and doublecrossing each other, and who love each other for it. Hence the “Virginia Woolf” comparison.
I think the best part of this movie is Anthony Hopkins with hair. Yes, I think that’s really the draw. Not a bad film necessarily, but I worry not much will stick with me – despite the dialogue being pretty snappy, I’m not sure it’s at all quotable.