Holiday Viewing: The Lion in Winter

It’s 1183 … but squabbling with the family is timeless

Eleanor of Aquitaine, greeting her estranged husband, King Henry II: “How dear of you to let me out of jail.”
Henry: “It’s only for the holidays.”

That’s no metaphorical jail. For some, closed quarters with the family at Christmas can feel like a prison sentence. Quite the opposite for Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn), enjoying time off for good behavior. The Lion in Winter, a 1968 adaptation of James Goldman’s play (both taking considerable liberties with the historical record), opens with Eleanor’s arrival in Anjou in 1183, called to Christmas court by the king (Peter O’Toole), who’s rather unromantically been imprisoning her for years of their long union. The purpose of her visit? Definitely not conjugal, nor a happy occasion to exchange gifts, reminisce over eggnog. It’s time to finally name Henry’s heir.

The monarch is aging – although this lion still has a fearsome roar, not to mention exuberant sex with his much younger mistress Alais (Jane Merrow), who rather awkwardly has been bartered in a land deal with the king of France (Timothy Dalton) to marry one of Henry and Eleanor’s princely sons. A celebrated military leader and Mommy’s dearest, Richard (Anthony Hopkins, in one of his first film appearances) is itching for the keys to the kingdom; he also loathes both his parents. Next-in-line Geoffrey (John Castle), a conniver and classic middle child, stirs up dissent in the hopes of advancing his own case for the crown. And then there’s the baby, John (Nigel Terry), an idiot, and a whinger, but Daddy’s favorite, which makes him a strong contender, too.

The children are all monsters, and their parents – alternately smothering and withholding – aren’t much better, distracted by their own battle of wits and wounded pride, a screwball comedy curdled. With all this nastiness gathered under one roof, forget “deck the halls.” This is “batten down the hatches and brace for very rough weather indeed.” Oh, but the rough stuff reaps such zesty rewards – in O’Toole’s roisterous delivery, or how brilliantly cutting, even gutting, the great Kate could be in shooting an acid-tipped arrow.

Director Anthony Harvey, an industry journeyman who started out as Kubrick’s editor and passed away just last month, loosens the picture from its stagebound beginnings by bounding across fields and through a plausibly medieval castle, stepping over mangy dogs and behind sooty tapestries (the better to spy on your brother whilst he plots a palace overthrow). Goldman’s script is just as athletic, gifting the actors great torrents of words and whiplash emotional register changes, which the actors take to with gusto. This is scene-chewing so vigorous you catch the ghost of gobs of viscera, dribbling down all their chins.

Which is all to say that The Lion in Winter is seriously fun. And funny. Way funner and funnier than whatever your mind’s eye conjures at the broad-strokes descriptor of “talky Sixties prestige picture about the British monarchy; nope, not Becket or A Man of All Seasons.” The Lion in Winter’s seven Oscar nominations sealed the imprimatur of prestige (three wins, including a historic tie for Best Actress; Hepburn shared honors with Funny Girl Barbra Streisand). Comedies notoriously perform poorly with the Academy’s voting body; it was probably Hepburn’s wimple that convinced everyone they were watching a serious drama.

Joke’s on them.

The Lion in Winter is available to rent at I Luv Video, Vulcan Video, and the usual online streaming sites.

Throughout December, the Chronicle film team is highlighting some of our favorite seasonal film and TV offerings. Find a new recommendation every day at our Holiday Movie Advent Calendar.

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