Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Lion in Winter

While others in my household watched Hallmark holiday specials, I viewed a different kind of holiday film -- "The Lion in Winter." It's the kind of dichotomy that's become the norm here.

Although many don't, technically one could consider this a holiday movie. The plot involves a family with strained relations gathering together for Christmas, where they air all their differences, and in the end, reconcile somewhat with each other.

In this case, the family is the highly dysfunctional one of Henry II. Henry invites his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine who has been kept locked up for some ten years (after siding with two of his sons in an aborted rebellion), to the winter court for Christmas. He also requires the presence of his three surviving sons. The eldest, Richard is Eleanor's favorite, while the youngest, John is the Henry's. The middle son, Geoffery most bargain for what position and power he can.

Added to the mix is Alais, Henry's current mistress, who came over 16 years before from France with a dowry and a promise of marriage. Also guesting with Henry is young Philip II, the new king of France, come to demand either a return of the dowry or the long-overdue marriage to one of the king's sons.

Ostensively, Henry's gathered everyone to announce his heir apparent -- and all involved (save poor Alais) play everyone against each other to ensure the right son is chosen.

OK, so it's not the kind of "comfort food" drama normally served up on TV at Christmas time, but that's part what made it so appealing. Almost everyone's lived through some kind of familial awkwardness this time of year, and "Lion in Winter" takes some of those spats and distorts them to funhouse mirror proportions.

The cast is superb, and the writing absolutely flawless. Peter O'Toole plays Henry II masterfully. He previously portrayed the character in the 1964 film "Becket" (with Richard Burton in the starring role), and this film seems very much like a sequel, giving O'Toole an opportunity to further develop the role.

Katherine Hepburn plays the iron-willed Elanor, and the rest of the cast is equally strong. Anthony Hopkins plays Richard (historically to become Richard the Lionheart, and Henry's heir) as a brooding warrior with dark secrets lurking just beneath. Nigel Terry (later to win fame as King Arthur in "Excaliber") portrays the snivelling weakling John, who would later be Robin Hood's enemy (according to legend) and sign the Magna Carta (according to fact). The biggest surprise was the appearance of Timothy Dalton as the young king of France (I didn't know he started films that early).

The film is based on a stage play by James Goldman, which means it's light on special effects, but heavy on dialogue. And what great dialogue it is!

Here's Eleanor scolding her children and perhaps saying something that's relevant today.

After all, if as Elanor says, the whims of rulers -- rather than events -- determine whether there's war or peace, then what does that say about the actions of current world leaders?

Yes, I could watch "Love's Enduring Promise" or some other holiday fluff, but I think I'll revisit the dysfunctional Plantagenets. Whip-smart dialogue, fully-realised characters -- and I haven't even mentioned the air of authenticity achieved by filming on location and an amazing attention to historic detail. No wonder it won three Oscars.

In one scene Elanor chases Henry from the room, making him physically ill with a detailed description of her affair with his father (which may or may not be true -- such is the level of mind games in this film). As he flees the room, she calmly observes, "Well, every family has their ups and downs."

It sure puts mine in perspective!

- Ralph


  1. I love this film. I haven't seen it in a long time, I think it's time to rent it again. I'd forgotten that it takes place at Christmas.

  2. Although no one discovers "the true meaning of Christmas" the way they do in the Hallmark movies, I think the season is an important part of the story.

    Henry greets his wife by saying "What shall we hang? The holly or each other?" And there's scenes of wrapping presents and decorating the tree, and all with dialogue purposefully at odds with the activities depicted.

    I think its very much a holiday film -- albeit one for those with grown-up tastes.

    - Ralph

  3. Ahhh, yes. This one. It rates right up there with Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf? as an excellent study in over-the-top family disfunction. I love it.

    I've yet to see a similar treatment of the illustrious Tudors--have you?

  4. I can't think of one. Although my favorite depiction of the Tudors has to be the BBC minseries "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" and its sequel "Elizabeth R." Fantastic!