Peter O’Toole is Henry 2, King of England; Katherine Hepburn is his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. What a pair. You don’t need to know a lot of history to know that this is “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” in a castle, only the George and Martha of this story have three sons. And all of them have knives. As Eleanor says, “Of course, he has a knife. He always has a knife. We all have knives. It’s 1183 and we’re barbarians.”
The movie, “Lion in Winter”, is set in a castle in the Middle Ages. The only way to heat the joint up is with a family fight. It may be Christmas but Eleanor hits that proverbial nail on the head when she lets out with, “It might as well be Lent.”
And what’s Christmas without a family get-together? The Plantagenets gather at Daddy’s place in Anjou for a jolly good time. Henry is the Lion and Eleanor the Winter, two great forces baring their teeth at one another and using their sons to do it. Henry wants John, the youngest, to be the next king, Eleanor wants Richard to take over the family biz from Dad. Neither parent seems to care much for Geoffrey. So he gets Burgundy. Isn’t that the way it is with middle children? Don’t they always end up with Burgundy?
Along the way, they’ll use Philip, the King of France, to get what they want. As Eleanor tells Richard, “Promise him anything.” It’s the Plantagenet way. But Phil has some tricks up his sleeve too. However, he is never a match for Henry–and Eleanor. The question is: Is Henry a match for his three sons? And his wife of thirty years?
For Hepburn, it is a new career. She had only completed three movies between 1957 and 1968. Much of that time she tended to an ailing Spencer Tracy. He had passed on in 1967 shortly after doing “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”. It seemed that now she was liberated, and she gave this magnificent performance, one of the best in a career of great performances. Here she is a match for Lawrence of Arabia, and he too delivers a stunning performance, portraying one of history’s great kings. In addition to these two, there’s a future James Bond as the King of France and Anthony Hopkins, years before he became Sir Anthony, playing Richard.
If you don’t think writers matter, think again. James Goldman’s script, adapted from his play, has some amazing dialogue. It only goes to show how good a director and actors can be with a good, and in this case, a great, script.
Here’s just a sample of a conversation:
Eleanor: You look fit. War agrees with you. I keep informed; I follow all your slaughters from a distance. Do sit down.
Prince Richard: Is this an audience… a good night hug with kisses… or an ambush?
Eleanor: Let’s hope it’s a reunion.
Give yourself a treat and see “Lion in Winter”. I think you’ll love it.