Christmas, and all the family is gathered together for the holidays. There’s a massive tree, lots of presents, spiced wine, feasting, and rancor galore. All the past year’s resentments and disappointments come bubbling to the surface because Daddy — a great, roaring lion of a man — is getting older and needs to think of which of his sons will follow him as the leader of the pride. He’s made no secret of his favorite, and his choice displeases everyone else. Mommy has her favorite, you see, and is determined to see that her special boy gets to succeed.
As if that weren’t enough tension and conflict, there’s yet another son who can’t understand why nobody in the family ever thinks of him when they think of the next head of the family business. To make everyone more edgy, let’s toss in the leader of a rival family, who has his own agenda, which mostly involves making sure the lion of this family goes down hard. To complicate things even further and make everything even more dangerous, lets throw in some tapestries for hiding behind, as well as some sharp, shiny knives — metaphorical and literal ones — for everyone to use against everybody else.
Welcome to the Christmas court of England’s Henry II in 1183. Adapted from James Goldman’s Broadway play of the same name, the witty, brutal, and passionate holiday gathering in the Oscar-winning classic The Lion in Winter (1968) makes crime dramas like The Godfather seem downright tame.
Henry II (Peter O’Toole) is 50 this Christmas, and he lets his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn) out of prison for the holidays. It seems Eleanor has led quite a few civil wars against Henry, over the succession no doubt, and Henry has to keep her imprisoned in order to feel safe. He’s letting Eleanor out this holiday season so they can plan, i.e., plot, who will become the next king.
Their first son, Henry, died, and while you might think that their next son, Richard (Anthony Hopkins, in his first starring role), should be the designated king, and Eleanor heartily approves of Richard as England’s next ruler, and not just because he’s her favorite. Richard, known later as Richard the Lionheart, is a great miliary leader and a proven warrior, and Queen Eleanor thinks that a necessary qualification for Henry’s successor, if only because France and England are still fighting over land.
Henry is the King of England but also the Lord of Ireland, Count of Anjou (similar to the English Duke of York, which would make Henry second in line to the French throne), and Duke of both Normandy and Aquitaine (in France, through his marriage to Eleanor), and Henry II doesn’t want Richard as the future king of England. Henry has other ideas for his presumptive heir.
Henry wants his youngest son John (Nigel Terry) to succeed, not because he’d make a better king but simply because Henry loves John best.
None of this squabbling over Richard vs. John sits too well with brother Geoffrey (John Castle), who can’t understand why both Henry and Eleanor think their middle son would make a wonderful chancellor to the next king but never seem to think of Geoff as King Geoffrey, so he begins to plot against his father with both Richard and John as well as with one of Henry’s allies.
Young Princess Alais (Jane Merrow), who’s betrothed to marry the future King of England, doesn’t want any of Henry’s sons to be the future king. As Henry’s lover and long-time mistress, she want’s no one but Henry as king.
Alais’ brother, King Philip II of France (Timothy Dalton, in his film debut) wants the lovely Alais to be wed to the heir to the English throne right away. If that doesn’t happen during this Christmas visit, Philip wants his sister’s dowry back. Since Alais’ dowry is land in France, which both England and France claim at the time, Henry certainly doesn’t want to give back the dowry. Philip already knows this, so he’s plotting with Richard, Geoffrey, and John, and Philip is planning war with Henry, no matter whom he chooses as his successor.
Henry’s fighting with his wife and all three of his sons, not only about who will be the next king, but who will get to marry Princess Alais. Henry doesn’t really want to give us Alais either: he’s madly in love with her.
And Eleanor, despite inciting rebellion against her husband and king, still madly loves Henry herself, and she’s well aware that Alais just happens to be young enough to give Henry more sons.
The first 15-20 minutes of the film are a bit slow, probably because everyone was trying a little too hard to say, “Look: we’re making a film, not jusstage playplay,” and while we get to see some outdoor shots where we meet the members of the family, none of these initial scenes really adds to the forward movement of the story. Once everyone is gathered together, however, it becomes obvious why this film is a classic.
The script is magnificent, the characters brutally fascinating, and the acting superb: O’Toole most definitely should have won an Oscar for his role as the anxious, angry, roaring Lion who feels his own winter coming on far too quickly and who is willing to do almost anything to prevent the destruction of his kingdom.
Nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Actor (O’Toole) and Best Costume Design (Margaret Furse), the film won three: Best Actress (Hepburn), Best Adapted Screenplay (James Goldman), and Best Music Score (John Barry). Lion in Winter also won BAFTAs for Hepburn and composer Barry, and won Golden Globes in Best Picture, and Best Actor for Peter O’Toole as the fiery Henry II.