The Lion in Winter (1968)
The Lion in Winter (1968)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 14 min.

Release Date: October 30th, 1968 MPAA Rating: PG

Director: Anthony Harvey Actors: Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins, Timothy Dalton, John Castle, Nigel Terry, Jane Merrow, Nigel Stock




e’ll make a good king,” Henry II (Peter O’Toole) says of his ragged, 16-year-old son John (Nigel Terry), whom he grooms for the throne (in 12th-century England). Henry has built an empire, but as he ages, he concerns himself with ensuring that his accomplishments and his kingdom endure. Problematically, like the fabled King Lear, Henry has three children, whose varying dispositions don’t lend to a peaceful transfer of power – further complicated by his disconcerted mistress Alais (Jane Merrow) and his imprisoned queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn), who prefers a different heir. Sons Richard (Anthony Hopkins) and Geoffrey (John Castle) are keener on bloodshed and cruelty – traits that are sure to contend with John’s own interests in battle, alongside their expectations for assuming the throne. Plus, the King of France, Philip II (Timothy Dalton), arrives to demand the fruition of a decades-old betrothal or the return of a treasured dowry.

During a Christmastime gathering, it becomes clearer just how much the participants in this power struggle abhor one another; yet their speeches are careful and purposeful, designed to create the proper appearances in public and to strike deeply when in private. These are powerful players in matters of fragile politics, quick to identify pawns, to manipulate everyone within reach, and to stab backs when the time is right. “Why did I have to have such clever children.”

Based on the James Goldman play (which he adapted himself), the dialogue is fantastically ferocious, riddled with bitter animosity and frank admissions of sexual deviances (for a period-piece setting, it’s uncommonly adult). The premise is absorbing, while the conversations are engaging in a perpetually vicious way, while always poetically cynical and shocking. It’s almost Shakespearean, but crasser and far more malicious; the verbal twists and turns and treachery are practically comical in their insidiousness (and when the double-crosses overlap or spill into the same spaces, they grow even more entertaining). At times, the rivalries, betrayals, and revelations remind of the adept scripting of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” And this is all aided by quirky editing and scene transitions, along with John Barry’s potent, operatic score.

“Good. We can talk behind his back.” Although the characters are all unequivocally vile and repugnant, there’s something alluring about the manners in which they strike phony deal after phony deal to deceive and influence; they’re playing a game for power, and the person in the lead continues to shift. Little wins are transient; by the end, every party is bound to lose. Here, the performances are a major component of the film’s success; everyone is extremely convincing in their ruthlessness and duplicitousness. It’s difficult to dislike them as much as they should be despised; there’s an undeniable amount of intelligence and wit in their evil, artful machinations and the brinkmanship of insults and emotional persecution. “We’ve mangled everything we’ve touched.”

With all the rampant utterances, it’s unfortunately noticeable when the picture runs overlong. But dull moments aren’t the issue; this is the kind of production in which audiences must simply wait for the abundance of loathsome personas to destroy themselves – a journey with a certain predictability and dourness and futility, even if it’s routinely smart and funny. Nevertheless, the scripting is superb – a masterfully caustic examination of medieval politics and familial rebellion.

– Mike Massie

  • 8/10