In 1066, something truly disastrous happened: William of Normandy successfully invaded and conquered England.
The problem wasn’t that the Normans were bad rulers. The disaster was that the invasion turned the eyes of Englishmen south to France for the first time. Suddenly the English world was a lot more complicated. After 1066, French leaders wanted to control England and English kings wanted a piece of France.
To make things even more of a mess, France wasn’t France yet; it was an ever-shifting web of counties and duchies. To English and French kings, these pieces of land were pawns in a never-ending game of thrones. They traded Brittany and Burgundy back and forth like baseball cards.
1066 set the stage for 800 years of squabbling and warring between the English and the French. Our own country exists because the king of France wanted to stick it to the English.
“The Lion in Winter” is a nerdy comic tragedy about a group of 12th Century royals who bicker for two hours straight about French territories and French people that shouldn’t belong to them.
It’s 1183. King Henry II of England (Peter O’Toole) has invited his whole family to a castle in Chinon (in France, of course) to spend Christmas together. He even lets his rebellious wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katherine Hepburn) out of prison for the holiday.
All three of King Henry’s sons – Richard, Geoffrey, and John – are vying to take the throne when their father dies. Henry favors teenage John. Eleanor prefers Richard, if only to tick Henry off.
To add a final layer of complication, wily French King Philip II (Timothy Dalton) is there to marry his sister Alais off to one of Henry’s sons. I only knew Mr. Dalton from his mediocre late-80s James Bond movies. Apparently, he was a tremendous actor when he was younger.
Honestly, the only reason to watch “The Lion in Winter” are the fun, scene-chewing performances. The plot is minimal and the endless scheming and double-crossing is absurd and hard to follow.
Anthony Hopkins – as the future Richard the Lionheart – gives the saddest and most subtle performance. On the face of it, his chivalry and bravery makes him the ideal choice to be king. But he’s a wounded child and a closet homosexual in love with King Philip. His vulnerability and humanity make him weak and foolish.
In this insanely great cast of young British super-actors, it is 60-year-old Katherine Hepburn who steals the show.
Eleanor of Aquitaine is the living embodiment of a great royal woman: a swirl of contradictions. She earnestly loves her husband Henry but she is compelled to compete with him. She loves her sons but she doesn’t respect them or like them particularly.
Hepburn is the only actor in “The Lion of Winter” who rises above the melodrama to find substance in the scheming. She shows us that the royal intrigue isn’t any different than any other family fighting with each other at Christmas.
Hepburn also reminds us that there are human consequences to all of this. The women of the medieval world are pawns. And so are the people of England, whose kings care more about Paris than London. And so are the people of Anjou and Aquitaine, who are mere prizes for warmonger monarchs.
1066 was an epic calamity. Instability, confusion, and war plagued the English and the French for 40 generations.
Getting involved in other countries’ affairs is always bad news. Thank goodness our wise rulers are always careful to keep us out of foreign entanglements.