“Henry was eighteen when we met, and I was queen of France. He came down from the north to Paris with a mind like Aristotle and a form like mortal sin. We shattered the commandments on the spot.”
So declares Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn) about her estranged husband, England’s King Henry II (Peter O’Toole), toward whom she still feels passion despite the fact that he’s kept her locked away in France for ten long years. As 1968’s The Lion in Winter — which is enjoying a 4K digital restoration and re-release — opens, it is 1183, and Henry summons Eleanor to “Christmas court,” where few gifts will be exchanged but many nefarious plots will be hatched, all with the goal of confirming an heir to Henry’s throne. (The eldest son has died.)
The king has big plans for his youngest, the idiot John (Nigel Terry), while Eleanor favors Richard (Anthony Hopkins, in his film debut), even as the neglected middle son, Geoffrey (John Castle), waits for his parents and siblings to destroy one another so he can step into the breach.
The Lion in Winter is a classic film, but not a great one. It’s clunky and overlong, as costume dramas with Shakespearean pretensions tend to be, especially back in the day. Some of the dialogue, by screenwriter James Goldman, adapting his 1966 play, strains for poetic profundity, but that too, was the way of things (then and now). No matter. The movies we take to our hearts are usually imperfect, and all that’s ever mattered about The Lion in Winter are Hepburn and O’Toole, and the pleasure we take from watching two masters inspire each other to greatness. Scenery chewing has rarely been so artful.
Director Anthony Harvey displays little gift for movement — there’s a dreadfully staged beachside battle scene — but he has an eye for framing and clearly knew how to inspire his cast, which includes Timothy Dalton, future James Bond, likewise making his film debut, as King Philip II of France. (This was Harvey’s second feature as director after a remarkable run as film editor on Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold). The long scene in which Henry’s sons sneak into Philip’s room, one after another, to curry his favor, only to duck behind a tapestry when the next plotter enters, is Dalton’s finest hour and a triumph for Harvey.
But we’re ultimately here for Eleanor and Henry and the mighty duo playing them, the likes of whom we’ll never see again. When Henry calls out to Eleanor, “You know, I hope we never die! Do you think there’s any chance of it?” it’s impossible not to hear it as a question Peter O’Toole is posing to Katharine Hepburn. Movie stars, like kings and queens, worry over such matters, just as movie lovers, back in the day and forever on, know that for these two celluloid gods, immortality is a given.