Video best bet: A murderous Christmas with the Plantagenet family
By Mike Sweeney
Just another typical Christmas in another typically dysfunctional family.
Except, in this family Dad is king and Mom is the exiled queen. And among the gifts that possibly may be distributed over the Yuletide season, celebrated in an unheated castle on the French coast, is the crown of England.
That's The Lion in Winter, and that's my favorite movie.
I could count on one hand the movies that I'm willing to see over and over again: The Godfather, Amadeus, A Hard Day's Night, The Maltese Falcon and the above-mentioned Lion. All have this in common: Every time you see one of these movies, you find something new. New bits of dialog you had forgotten or overlooked, new nuances in the emsemble acting, new delights in the cinematography or the musical score.
Of all of those movies, though, none is as densely packed with goodies as The Lion in Winter. You could expand 30 seconds of this 1968 classic into an hour of the typical fluff on screen today.
Talk about an all-star cast. . . .
Peter O'Toole plays Henry II as the larger-than-life king who ruled not only Great Britain but also much of the continent of Europe. Katharine Hepburn won an Oscar for her portrayal of Eleanor of Aquitaine, who gave Henry four sons and a claim on some of the finest lands in France. (Actually, in an Oscar rarity, Hepburn shared the Best Actress statue that year because of a tie vote with Barbra Streisand.)
Two little-known actors of the time, Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton, play Prince Richard the Lion-Hearted and the king of France, respectively. Hopkins has the tougher role, but remarkably succeeds in balancing the tensions of Richard, who was simultaneously a cold-hearted warrior, a Machiavellian pragmatist and an uncloseted homosexual. Dalton draws these qualities out of Hopkins, as well as the stupidity of Prince John, in an effort to win back for France the lands that King Henry Plantagenet has taken.
Hopkins' Richard must vie with brothers Geoffrey and John to win Henry's endorsement for the crown. Henry is old -- he's the oldest man he knows, with a decade on the pope -- and must choose an heir because the death of his eldest son, Prince Henry, has upset the rules of primogeniture. Eleanor has her own designs on which of her sons will succeed her estranged husband.
One step ahead of them all is O'Toole, who roars and cajoles and schemes while chewing the scenery. I rank his portrayal of Henry even above his amazing turn as Lawrence of Arabia. And Hepburn is his match, chew for chew.
Who will win, and who will lose this game of kings?
The plot quickly becomes entangled. Don't worry about following every twist, as first Richard and then John, and then Richard again seem to have the advantage. Just drink in the 12th-century atmosphere, enjoy the full-throated medieval chorus, and revel in the amazing dialog, adapted for the screen from the stage by the play's author, James Goldman.
To wit: Henry's youngest, John, laments that nobody but his father loves him. "If I were on fire, none of you would p--- on me to put it out."
Richard replies, "Someone strike a flint and let us see."
Sibling rivalry lives. Eight hundred years ago, things pretty much were the same as they are today in many large, screwed-up families. Today, we fight over money, cars, clothes, whatever. Same fight in the 1180s, just for bigger stakes.
The movie's clash of egos and wills is particularly enjoyable when I watch because of my personal connection with the characters. I'm a direct descendant, through both my mother and my father, of Henry II and Eleanor (and, to be sure, the pimpled and pencil-necked John). I think of these characters as rich, eccentric grandparents.
You should think of them, too, as real people (because they were) portrayed by excellent actors at the top of their game (because they were). Rent or buy this movie, or tape it off the TV. Watch it again and again, and thank me.
Archived Months:September 1998