Which of King Henry II's sons will succeed him on the throne? This question is rife with political intrigue, personal vendettas, and intense family drama in The Lion in Winter. The relationships are fascinating to watch unfold. The three sons will stop at nothing to wear the crown. King Henry has his favorite, and his wife Eleanor has hers. Their desires come to a head over the Christmas holiday, as secrets are revealed, confidences betrayed, and lives put at stake!
The result is some of the best writing and acting I’ve ever seen on film. Peter O’Toole plays Henry and Katharine Hepburn is Eleanor of Aquitaine, whom he keeps imprisoned except on special occasions. Believe it or not, Eleanor still loves her husband, and he’s still quite fond of her. But they also love power, and they’re not afraid to hurt each other for it. Hepburn and O’Toole walk a fine balance, mixing ruthlessness and affection in a way I’ve never seen before. With their considerable combined talent and James Goldman’s eviscerating dialogue, The Lion in Winter becomes a deliciously wicked, delightfully unpredictable tour de force.
Other fine performances are given by Anthony Hopkins as their son Richard and Timothy Dalton as the visiting King Philip of France. The music by John Barry shifts from bombastic to ethereal, austere to triumphant — it’s one of the composer’s best efforts. Director Anthony Harvey’s zoom ins and zoom outs haven’t aged well, but he does an excellent job staging a film where there are often six or seven characters on screen together.
I know a period piece that’s based on a stage play can be a hard sell, but trust me: The Lion in Winter is captivating stuff.
Academy Awards: Best Actress (Hepburn), Best Music (John Barry), Best Adapted Screenplay (Goldman)
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (O’Toole), Best Costume Design