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(film only review)
Christmas 1183. King Henry II resides at his château in Chinon, France, together with his three sons, Richard, Geoffrey and John. He's invited; or rather summoned, his wife, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine for the holidays. He's exiled her because of her constant interference in his affairs, she's lived locked in the Salisbury Tower at Windsor Castle for ten years already. Later King Philipp II of France arrives, son of Eleanor's ex-husband, Louis II of France, and half-brother to Alais, Henry's current mistress. Philip has given her to Henry's successor, whoever that will be, and demands either a wedding asap or the return of the dowry.
King Henry hasn't become sentimental and wants the family around him for the festive season. The reason for the gathering is that he's 50 years old, he feels ancient. "Good God...I'm the oldest man I know." He wants to decide which son will be his successor and settle his affairs once and for all. For this he needs the Queen's consent. But that's the snag. She doesn't give her consent to his plans. She's always favoured Richard, the oldest of the three sons (they had eight children together, one son died, the three daughters must have been married off, they're never mentioned), whereas Henry wants John to succeed him. None of the parents gives Geoffrey a thought. He can only become chancellor to the brother who'll be King.
Hewing and stabbing ensue, verbally and literally. "What should we hang - the holly or each other?" Each of the main protagonists fights for themselves, in order to reach their aims they plot, cheat and lie but also form alliances. Once, in a rare moment of calm, the King and the Queen are walking arm in arm along a corridor and she says, "You know what, I've never really liked our children." The flame of their former love hasn't been completely extinguished in the Queen and the King confesses to feeling a deep affection for her. The last scene of the film is one of the best a film has ever had, you could never imagine it!
You may argue that books or films based on historical events can only be thrilling if you know nothing about history and thus follow the occurrences as if the endings were open. That isn't true, though. The way a story is told or enacted by actors and actresses can create tension nevertheless. Even for a historian who's an expert in the High Middle Ages and knows the succession of the English kings forwards and backwards this well made piece of fiction has its allure. In 1966 the American James Goldwin wrote a play for a stage on Broadway. The characters and the general outline are historically correct, the Christmas come-together, however, didn't take place. Later he adapted the script from his play and in 1968 the film The Lion in Winter was released starring:
Peter O'Toole as King Henry II
Katherine Hepburn as Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine
Anthony Hopkins as Prince Richard (his film debut)
John Castle as Prince Geoffrey
Nigel Terry as Prince John
Timothy Dalton as King Philip II of France (his film debut)
Jane Marrow as Alais, as Philips's half-sister and the King's current mistress
It was the second time I watched this film, the first time was at the pictures when the film was released in Germany in 1970. I have a confession to make, Peter O'Toole has been the only actor I've ever had a crush on. But only the young O'Toole. At the time of the production of the film he was 35 years old. My crush began to dwindle after that; in 1989 I saw Peter O'Toole in the play Jeffrey Bernhard is Unwell in London. He was 57 then, I shouldn't have gone.
This is a fitting place to fill in the ages of the other actors. The real Queen Eleanor was 61 years old in 1183, Katherine Hepburn was 61 years old when she played her. (An interesting aside: She was a (very distant) descendant of the real Queen Eleanor from numerous lines.) King Henry II was 50 years old in 1183 and was played by 35-year-old Peter O'Toole as I've already mentioned. His film sons were only five, seven and thirteen years younger than he. If I hadn't found this information on IMDb, I wouldn't have suspected this. Thanks to the make-up artist and costume designer I didn't notice any discrepancies.
I can well imagine the play on stage. We can enjoy wonderful images (photography: Douglas Slocombe) of the wintry landscape and life at a château of the Middle Ages with dogs and pigs running around everywhere and noblemen eating like the latter animals, but The Lion in Winter is really an intimate play. The language is elaborate with a Shakespearian flair. People talk, argue, shout, whisper, cry, they love or hate each other and sometimes both at the same time. In 2003 a remake was shot with Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close. I don't want to watch it; it's probably a good film, but it can't be better than the original. I just can't imagine that Peter O'Toole and Katherine Hepburn can be surpassed. Hepburn got an Oscar for her performance, O'Toole was nominated, too, but didn't get one because he'd already got the trophy for playing the same king, Henry II, in Beckett. I wonder if he had identity problems during those years?
The other actors must also be praised. Anthony Hopkins gives a Prince Richard who makes his by-name Lionheart believable. He's strong, brave but also sensitive. John Castle as Prince Geoffrey, the sandwich child, is a mean bastard but conveys the impression that this is his only way to attract attention and that he'd love to be different if only his parents would notice him. I must apologise to Hugh Grant, when I saw Prince John I thought it was him as a young man, the name Nigel Terry meaning nothing to me. He does look a bit like him, doesn't he? But he was only eight years old when the film was shot. He comes over as utterly dim-witted, Richard calls him 'a walking pustule'. It's a mystery why his father is so besotted with him. Jane Marrow is beautiful and innocent, the only character with a pure heart. She's moved around as if she were a chess piece. It's touching to see how she defends herself. The costume designer (Margaret Furse) who did good work with all other characters committed a blunder with her. It's clear that it's freezing cold in the château in winter, everyone is wearing several layers of cloth, hides, furs, only Alais walks around in thin dresses with deep décollétes. If the real Alais had done this, she'd have died a premature death of pneumonia. This isn't mentioned on IMDb, yet some other nice blunders are. Henry refers to the lack of value of Eleanor's signature on paper although paper became known in Europe only a century later; parchment was used then. Syphilis is mentioned although the first recorded outbreak was 300 years later. We see the Queen decorating a Christmas tree, although Christmas trees were introduced by Queen Victoria's husband only over seven hundred years later! Wonderful trivia.
I can't understand why people buy DVDs and watch the same films again and again. This costs a lot of money and is boring in my opinion. So many films, so little time! I've recently discovered Lovefilm, a sibling of Amazon's where I can rent DVDs. Perfect. For me this discovery is especially valuable because I can now watch English and American films in the original version. All films shown in German cinemas are dubbed which is a pity for people who can understand foreign languages. 'Original version' means here that I can hear the actors talking English. But that was not the language spoken by the historical characters. King Henry II understood many languages but spoke only Latin and French. (Imagine the film in Latin with English subtitles!)
I've started my rent-a-DVD life with old films I remember from my youth. The reason is partly nostalgia, partly interest in finding out if my taste or my perception of the topics has changed. The Lion in Winter is deeply rooted in history, yet, I find it deals with eternally valid themes. Let Henry not be the King of an Empire but the boss of a firm with sons who all want to inherit it and hate each others' guts. Make him a conniving, sly old fox who can see every treachery coming and is capable of every treachery himself. Give him a wife with the same qualities. He wouldn't be able to exile her as it was possible in the Middle Ages, but he'd find a way to get rid of her - make her live in a rich, second home far away - so that he could live with his young lover. Maybe he wouldn't threaten his sons with a dagger and throw them into a dungeon but he'd certainly find other means to subdue them. Exasperated with his scheming brood he would also constantly think of divorce so that he could marry again and start a new family with, hopefully, more obliging children. Does that sound like a story which is nearly a thousand years old? Certainly not.
If you're not a Christmas type, if you're afraid of too much sweetness and harmony in your family during the holidays or if you wonder if there are other dysfunctional families like yours when you find them all together squabbling under the Christmas tree, I can recommend this film as an antidote.