The Lion in Winter
I first saw The Lion in Winter in a movie theater in 1968 when it first came out. Having read a half dozen books about Eleanor, Henry and their sons, I fancied myself quite knowledgeable. I “got” the little inside jokes. I laughed heartily to the annoyance of my fellow moviegoers.
I adored Katherine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole as Eleanor and Henry (I have never since seen a movie or read a book about these Plantagenets and not envisioned them as they were in this movie sometimes younger – sometimes older but always Hepburn and O’Toole.)
Despite having watched The Lion in Winter several times since, (and having read dozens more books), it was not until I watched it for this review that I realized I had not seen what this movie was really about in all its multiple layers.
First of all, notwithstanding the deft and clever comedic touches, this movie is definitely not a comedy. It tells the story of two complex, intelligent people (Henry and Eleanor) who had shared a passion for life, and for each other, that blazed like a comet – and like a comet it finally burned itself out.
Whether it was Henry’s infidelity (especially his affair with the “fair Rosamond”), or whether Eleanor who was a good bit older than Henry and incapable of controlling her sense of betrayal, Eleanor’s revenge was to incite her older sons to rebel against their father.
Henry was devastated, and when he was victorious he forgave his sons but not his wife, Eleanor was imprisoned for life in England.
Eleanor, their three remaining sons, and King Phillip II of France were summoned to Chinon Castle in France, to discuss the future of the Angevin Empire and to settle on which of their sons would inherit the crown of England. Eleanor wanted Richard (her favorite, who was next in line) and Henry preferred the youngest, John (who was his favorite). Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany was odd man out and never failed to let his resentment of this show. To complicate matters still further, also present at this gathering was sweet and gentle Alais: sister to Phillip, raised by Eleanor, betrothed to Richard and mistress of Henry. It was not a cozy group.
The twists and turns, loves and hates, and bitter rivalries provide an interesting story line. Underneath it all, there are still traces of the passionate love shared between one of the most interesting couples in history.
The casting for this production was superb. My one quibble was the portrayal of John. Nigel Terry played him as a somewhat deformed, dribbling idiot. John was not a nice or honest man, but he was not a stupid one.