So this one is kind of a funny story. You see, I first saw part of The Lion in Winter years ago when I was too young to fully appreciate sophisticated movies (I think this was back when I as still a ginormous Star Wars nerd, I'm not proud of those days). I remember seeing maybe the first twenty minutes or so, and being disappointed to find out that despite the Midieval Setting it wasn't full of epic swordfights and exciting action but rather a story of political intrigue with a lot of talking.
Being the way I was then, I ended up leaving as soon as I realized that there wasn't going to be much action. The film began with a sword fight, a jousting tournament, and an epic battle scene, but it ended up being more about a small group of characters in one castle and their interactions. Now, years later, in light of Terrence Towles Canote's British Invaders Blogathon, I have been inspired to dig out that same copy of the film and give it another chance. Was it worth it? I think it was.
It is 1183, and Christmas is approaching. The aging King Henry II (Peter O'Toole) is trying to decide who will take his place when he dies. He organizes a family reunion to which he invites his three sons Richard (Anthony Hopkins), Geoffrey (John Castle), and John (Nigel Terry). Also invited is Henry's wife Eleanor (Katharine Hepburn) who has been imprisoned and is only released for the holidays, his mistress Alais (Jane Merrow), and her brother Philip II (Timothy Dalton) who also happens to be the King of France.
Unfortunately, neither Henry nor Eleanor can agree on who should take over, and before long tensions begin to rise. Soon the three sons are forming alliances with and double-crossing each other in the hopes of taking the throne. Philip finds opportunities to take advantage of the mounting conflict. Eleanor and Henry end up in a complicated relationship that constantly veers between rekindling their old love and plotting against each other, while Alais is caught in the middle of it all.
Now, I'll confess, it is a very complicated story, and I suspect that you may have to watch the film multiple times to fully understand everything. You really do have to be on your toes or else you may lose track over who is scheming against who, but it is really a very well-executed piece. The characters play nicely off of each other, each one has a distinctive personality, and there's plenty of great scenery and amazing sets for the castle where much of the narrative is set.
Peter O'Toole is incredibly convincing playing the aging Henry II, which is a pretty remarkable feat given he was only 36 at the time, and this was just a few years after his breakout role in Lawrence of Arabia. Katharine Hepburn is equally strong as his scheming wife, balancing those romantic and sinister qualities so that you're never sure whether to love her or fear her. Same goes for each of the sons (I honestly had no idea until the credits rolled that was a young Anthony Hopkins as Richard). Really, it's just great acting all around.
I'm glad I decided to give this film another go. Considering the complexities maybe it's for the better I left early on the first time round, since I probably wouldn't have understood it. However, there is a strange charm to the whole thing, even if it's not easy to follow. If you'd like a clever Medieval narrative drawing less from fantasy and more from history with less focus on sword fights and more emphasis on character, this is for you.