“My life, when it is written, will read better than it lived.” In The Lion in Winter, this self-assessment from Henry II rings even truer than he could realize. With James Goldman’s thunderingly brilliant play and script, Henry’s story takes the form of gorgeous, intricately constructed poetry. In the hands of one of the finest casts ever assembled, Goldman’s dialogue gains an almost musical quality. Every syllable and every silent beat feel exquisitely rehearsed and yet totally natural. Each sentence twists and bends with perfect amounts of irony, anger, or wry regret until it’s difficult to imagine it spoken any other way. Even though it still features a few cinematic flourishes, The Lion in Winter largely crackles with the heat and energy of a ferocious theatrical performance.
It’s 1183, and King Henry FitzEmpress (Peter O’Toole) summons his immediate family to celebrate Christmas at Chinon, France. Unbeknownst to this ragtag clan of intellectuals, Henry will use this gathering to name his eventual successor from one of three sons: Richard (Anthony Hopkins) is oldest and most capable, although his closet conceals a few skeletons. Geoffrey (John Castle) has the Machiavellian savvy to wriggle his way to the top, although his icy demeanor alienates him. Finally, lunkheaded John (Nigel Terry) curries heavy favor with Henry, but his youth and incompetence render him unlikely to survive the wrath of his brothers. This masterpiece of familial dysfunction is completed by two disparate women: Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katherine Hepburn), Henry’s Queen, whose rebellious machinations against him have earned her a luxurious imprisonment in Salisbury Tower. Young Alys (Jane Merrow), the daughter of the French King Louis VII, was once promised to marry Richard, but has engaged in an affair with Henry instead. King Phillip II (Timothy Dalton), Louis’ successor, soon arrives at Chinon to ensure his half-sister’s wedding goes through.
That sounds like a lot of plot, but it’s really just a lump of clay for these conniving characters to mold and remake from one scene to the next. Alliances get forged in one room and sundered next door. Lies and promises, flattery and insults, they fly in all directions, sometimes from the same sentence. The centerpiece of all this squabbling is the meddling and nettling of Henry and Eleanor. Long estranged but still in love, this royal couple lives to find weaknesses in each other. At one point, Eleanor assures Henry that she adores him and always will. He shakes his head with disgust. “Of all the lies you’ve told, that is the most terrible.” A wicked grin spreads across her face. “I know,” she says with muted joy. “That’s why I’ve saved it up for now.”
With such phenomenal dialogue, these world-class performers make the most of every scene. Every actor is truly note-perfect in every part. O’Toole got nominated for a lot of Oscars, but his turn as grumbling, weary Henry might just be his finest hour. Hepburn (an Oscar-winner for Best Actress) is every bit his match as Queen Eleanor, who soaks most of her sentences with sarcasm. The royal boys (especially young Hopkins) do a great job keeping pace. Lean and mean, Dalton sends most of his dialogue through a smirking smile.
Goldman’s script leaves a legacy that dialogue can be intelligent and beautiful at the same time. In the right hands, these words move with meter and melody. The Lion in Winter is a passionate film, made by passionate professionals. Henry’s self-assessment was right in more ways than he could mean for it to be: His life, as written by Goldman and executed by an incredible cast and crew, lives with a fiery genius in a film for the ages.