I watched A Lion in Winter with my mom and sister, while I spent a little time at home. Supportive of my blogging mission, they were excited to watch a best picture nomination with me. Shortly into the film, they both had their questions and comments. “Which Henry is he again? John looks like such a slob. Is that Katharine Hepburn?” I always enjoy a little banter while watching these films. However, about an hour into the movie, mom had fallen asleep and my sister spent most of the time looking at her phone. I warned them that A Lion in Winter may not be their taste in movies, but I think they were curious as to what a “British costume drama” actually was.
After the film ended and my mom woke up, I gave her the gist of what happened. I could tell they both lost interest because of the historical time period, rather than the dramatic family based plot. King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) has allowed his wife, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn) to leave the Tower of London over the winter holiday so they may all visit with their three sons, who all want to be named successor to the throne. Henry also has his mistress, Alais (Jane Merrow) around, whom he wants to marry, and her brother, King Philip of France (Timothy Dalton), who starts to make deals with each of the possible future kings behind Henry’s back.
The pull over which brother will be named the future king of England is the main source of family tension. Richard (Anthony Hopkins in his debut role) is the strongest and most handsome of the brothers, but has a quiet and meek side as well. While Eleanor is pushing for Richard, Henry would rather give the throne to the youngest son, John (Nigel Terry). Just by his appearance we see what a mistake this would be, John is a messy-haired slob who can’t stand up straight. Plus, he just whines and expects the throne because daddy promised it to him. Then there is poor Geoffrey (John Castle), the crafty but forgotten middle son who just is not satisfied with being a duke.
The character chemistry is what works best in this film. With Eleanor trying to manipulate Richard with guilt, Geoffrey trying to lead John, and all three sons scheming with Philip, all these alliances flow and intertwine flawlessly. Best of all are the scenes between Henry and Eleanor. O’Toole and Hepburn make their characters interact with the most fluid mix of love and loathing that makes this film a shear joy to watch. At one point, I made some natural chuckle of delight watching these two in an argument, to which my sister looked up and asked what was so funny.
When I asked my sister what she thought about the movie, she said, “It was good, but all they did was talk.” For your casual, twenty-first century movie goer who generally doesn’t watch movies more than twenty years old, that seems like a normal reaction. No harm, no foul. Yes, most of the action comes in the form of dialogue and long eloquent speeches, but they’re so telling and beautifully delivered. The part that made me smile though, is that my sister did recognize that it was good. There’s no hiding that. And Katharine Hepburn simply should not have shared that Oscar, it was all hers.
“I could peel you like a pear, and God, himself, would call it justice.”