When it’s on: Wednesday, 30 May (3.00 am, Thursday)
In my time I’ve known contessas, milkmaids, courtesans and novices, whores, gypsies, jades, and little boys, but nowhere in God’s western world have I found anyone to love but you.
As a History graduate, I find it sad and surprising that Henry II doesn’t rank amongst the leading English monarchs for study. Perhaps it’s the fact that Henry spoke French. Maybe it’s the lack of a Shakespeare play on his life, or possibly it’s because his reign took place so very long ago, but anyone wishing to cover an endlessly fascinating time in medieval history would get it all with Henry Plantagenet. A man with boundless levels of both energy and rage, the King ruled an empire that stretched from the Scottish borders to the Pyrenees, making him the leading European, secular figure of his age. His longstanding legacy was his reform of justice in England, yet he’s best known for his involvement of the murder of his friend and Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket.
That’s the subject of another film, Becket, which by a coincidence that guarantees a semblance of continuity also starred Peter O’Toole as Henry. The Lion in Winter concerns itself with the King’s later years, when his life was dominated by family squabbles. His marriage to the older Eleanor of Aquitaine added an enormous slab of land in western France to his holdings, yet their partnership was undermined by a series of kingly bits on the side, which led Henry’s wife to scheme and plot in order to advance their sons’ claims over his rule. As for the sons, history records them in a somewhat less than favourable light. Eternally leading revolts against their father, recruiting various lords to their causes and with Eleanor pulling strings behind the scenes. What a bunch. Henry’s longevity made things more frustrating for his offspring and it’s this degree of tension that’s captured in The Lion in Winter.
O’Toole returns as an older and more cynical King. He’s worn down by his sons’ machinations and has resorted to keeping Eleanor under lock and key. Christmas in Chinon gives them an opportunity to get together and bury the hatchet, but by and into whom is yet to be revealed. The actor was fifteen years younger than the 50-year old King he played, but this allowed him to accurately get across Henry’s energy. He was younger still than Katharine Hepburn, who was hired for the role of Eleanor. In an example of casting that fit like a glove, Hepburn was a perfect choice – beautiful, clever and still in thrall to Henry, despite his professed love for Alais (Jane Merrow), the French princess who is intended for one of the sons yet becomes the King’s mistress. For the remaining roles, stage actors were chosen – Anthony Hopkins played Richard, John Castle was Geoffrey, John was taken on by Nigel Terry. A fresh-faced Timothy Dalton played the young French king, Philip. Both Dalton and Hopkins were making their screen debuts.
Based on James Goldman’s play (Goldman also produced the film’s screenplay), The Lion in Winter is literary, favouring words over action. Long scenes take place in which people talk to each other, but it’s the things they say and the circumstances that matter. Henry’s sons are, to a man, instantly disownable. Spiteful, antagonistic towards each other and their father and continually vying for power and favour, they’re an awful brood. John is Henry’s favourite, but only because he appears the most docile and least likely to cause him grief. The warlike Richard turns out to be a mummy’s boy, a gay lover of Philip’s and wholly disinterested in anything that takes place off the battlefield. Geoffrey, apparently out of the running for the kingship, seems content to sit back and play Chancellor to the best candidate, but he’s the most dangerous and assiduous of the terrible trio.
At its heart, the film is really about the fractured relationship between Henry and Eleanor. The pair spar verbally like old pros, but there’s affection also and mutual understanding, which relates to a past in which they were obviously crazy about each other. The script and Anthony Harvey’s intelligent direction get the characters just right. Eleanor really was that worldly, the consummate survivor with similar levels of inner strength and fragility. Even at 50, Henry was still a ball of energy, willing to incarcerate an entire family that sickened him in favour of starting all over again. As good is the depiction of the medieval world as a place of muck and darkness. The King kicks chickens out of the way as he enters his castle. His clothes aren’t the multi-coloured splendour one might expect of royalty. This is a lived in Chinon, a city of stone and shit that makes one wonder the states of squalor the peasantry had to look forward to.
The Lion in Winter won three Oscars, for Hepburn, Goldman, and John Barry’s score. The latter, incorporating monastic choruses with Barry’s traditional, brass-heavy overtures to sublime effect, is a thing of utter beauty. The main theme plays over shots of cathedral grotesques and is heavy with portent, but the real joy is perhaps the music that accompanies Eleanor’s arrival in Chinon, a melancholic piece that hints at her former loveliness and the wasted years she’s put in.
The Lion in Winter: *****