The Lion in Winter – A Christmas Classic for Those Who Love Moulded Wine with a Hint of Thick Plotting

“What family doesn’t have their ups and downs?” says Eleanor of Aquitaine, in the formidable form of Katherine Hepburn in a film which is so thick with plotting one is glued to the screen from the first moment to see how this dysfunctional families Christmas will end.

A brief summary:

King Henry II of England has called the whole family to the Christmas Court of 1183 in Chinon, France; his three sons Richard, Geoffrey and John who are each vying in succeeding their father to the throne once he dies in their own special ways, his locked up wife Eleanor of Aquitaine and adding politics to the already thick proceedings in inviting the 17-year old King Philip II of France whom he has known since he was a boy. Add to that his son John’s fiancé Princess Alais whom Henry has taken as his mistress, a girl whom Eleanor nurtured. Add to this the power play of husband and wife, each one is eying a different son for the throne; Richard for Eleanor and John for Henry and you have more dysfunctions than one can count with the fingers on your hand. And this is merely the surface level set up!


The Lion in Winter is originally a play written by James Goldman in 1966, premiering at The Ambassador theatre on Broadway with Robert Preston as Henry II, Rosemary Harris as Eleanor and Christopher Walken (yes, the one you are thinking of) as Philip. The play has since been produced many times since its premier and the film’s success certainly helped in keeping it afloat all the decades to come. For those curious theatre geeks (which I admit I am myself) I recommend you check the play out, either in book form or in a theatre. This play hasn’t lasted this long for nothing after all and the dialogue along with its many quotable lines are nothing but pure gold.


The movie released in 1968 is star-studded with actors who make the ever-changing plots and schemes easy to understand and the play’s dialogue a treat to the ears.

Peter O’Toole as Henry II is both bombastic, lovable and terrifying as his beautiful blue eyes emote the pain of 50 years alive with 29 on the throne and indeed the fear of leaving his country unstable without a good ruler to succeeded him. Henry loves those who love him, but like any flawed human, his heart can be a fickle thing. Peter O’Toole (who was 36 at the time of this film) makes us see the worn out king, the politician, the father, the lover and husband in equal measure as he balances out these faces he puts on with an almost jolly smile, not knowing which is his real one, but still seeing the large-hearted person underneath all these faces that makes him so lovable and indeed why he has had so many, many, many lovers in his time (saying nothing of Peter O’Toole’s own reputation as a Casanova). He makes the emotional turns shocking when they come, as much as those quiet moments where no smile is to be seen on his face. As Henry says himself. “I’ve snapped and plotted all my life. There’s no other way to be a king, alive and fifty all at the same time.”

Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine I have already mentioned as formidable in the role, disappearing in it while still retaining a certain star quality about her that makes you remember her most from the film if nothing else. She delivers her lines with a sharp zing, a voice which tells us of a mind that is constantly at work, rarely stopping in scheming except in her private moments or when caught off-guard. Her presence is strong, the camera loving every moment she is on-screen with great intensity, almost overwhelming as I found myself enjoying the movie more whenever she was on screen. She even gets a grand set up and entrance. The real Eleanor of Aquitaine was a legend in her time as the and Hepburn portrays that in her own legendary way, beautiful in how she laments her long faded youth (though Hepburn is herself still very much a striking woman even in her 60s). The years might have made her old, but her mind is and quick wit is what makes us see why Henry fell in love with her long ago and why we love her even when she schemes against everyone. Her mind is her best asset and she knows it, indeed she makes no secret of it. It is a delight to watch and the movie is worth it just to see Katherine Hepburn making one of the best performances of her career (she tied with Barbra Streisand in the 1969 Oscars for Best Actress and its a deserved win).

The movie is filled with an air of a deadly decadent court, but more homely and clustered (as Medieval castles were). There are dogs running about, straw on the floor, a flock of chicken on the stairs. Henry isn’t dressed in royal robes of ermine and silk, but in an easy to move pair of tights and a warm long sleeves tunic that is worn from overuse. John Barry composed the music that is filled with Latin chants that reign in the overture and add to the shadowy atmosphere where every wall has ears.

As for people whom I think will love this film? Those who love classics, those who are tired of the same Christmas movies every year and want something different, who are fans A Game of Thrones (as well as the ASOIAF books), history buffs (this film plays loose with history, sacrificing accuracy for a good story), theatre people, fans of the stars and those who just want to watch out of curiosity.

Whichever you are (if you are all or none) this film is a good one to check out just for the quotable lines to use next time you have Christmas with your family.

One like this: “In a world where carpenters get resurrected, everything is possible.” 

Or this: “What shall we hang, the holly or each other?”







To continue on Hepburn and O’Toole, their scenes are filled with intensity and pure dynamite. I believe them as they embrace and speak of their youth together. This was a couple in love and under all the scheming and bickering they still do love each other. They are the only two people who can keep up with each other and know exactly where it hurts as they lash out against each other in their fits of rage. They joke and hurt each other about things past with only references they know like the rumour of how Eleanor supposedly bedded Henry’s father Thomas Becket. Eleanor gives back with a deep disdain for Rosamund de Clifford, a woman who Henry loved more than her and who was more beautiful than her.



(The chemistry between them is wonderful! The cold and calculating Queen and the hot-headed King equal each other out and thus there is no one else who can be their true intellectual rival as no one else can keep up with both of their snark and sarcasm when they are in a room together)


Finally to the other stars of this movie! I’ll go by rank here and start with King Philip so I don’t forget him so better to have him here first before I tackle the sons and Alais.

King Philip II of France is played by Timothy Dalton in his first film (according to Wikipedia). He by no means looks 17 with his healthily sharp jaw line and black beard. If everyone in the film wasn’t already scheming then he would be the stereotypical ‘Villain’ of the movie. He is quite sleazy, slithering while he does politics amongst this dysfunctional family. The fact that Henry mocked his father while he was still alive and married Eleanor who was his father Louis VII’s first wife (she got only daughters and the marriage was annulled. Philip is the son of his third wife Adéle of Champagne). But if there is a villainous low (there are a lot those in this, especially at the end) then it would be the fact that Philip became Richards lover and then stopped writing to him once he married and he reveals all of this to Henry in his chambers. He says it all with a slimy smile all the while Richard is behind a tapestry and hears all of this! There are lows and there are LOWS! He is trying to prove to Henry that he is a man and how good he is in manipulating in the long game after several times Henry has called him a ‘Boy’ in front of everyone. He knows he cannot win in experience, but he can still hurt him. The fact that Richard’s sexuality is revealed without his consent and by Philip whom he trusted and loved makes the scene even more heartbreaking.

Richard is played by Anthony Hopkins in his first film role. And for a first film he does a fantastic job. Richard is a hot-head like his father (perhaps the subconscious reason why Eleanor favours him?), he doesn’t have as quick of a wit as he likes, is cool to his mother, though still knows he needs her favour if he is to be king and sees being heir-apparent as his right as he is the eldest son. Hopkins’ first film role couldn’t have been better. In the scene after his sexuality is revealed he has an outpour of emotion to let out as he pleads to his father to still love him for himself. He also tells us that since John is his father’s favourite its no wonder that Richard is so close to his mother since Henry wasn’t there for him when he needed him (If I remember correctly this exchange, it’s a very talky movie). It’s a performance where one can see the talent and precision that still continues on in his work to this day.

The middle-child Geoffrey is played by John Castle whose facial expression doesn’t reveal what he is thinking. Having been passed in the battle for the throne he wants to be an advisor to whomever is next to be king. Eleanor says that he would sell all of them if he wanted to. Nobody considers him, though his introduction tells of his great intelligence in ordering troops upon a beach to battle, looking from far away while the others do the fighting. That is the job he has taken upon himself, moving people like chess peaces to fighting amongst themselves, while he stays back and watches.

Lastly is the youngest son John played by Nigel Terry. Richard loves him the best and has spoiled him from an early age, making him almost assured that he will be king because his father loves him. John is not as intelligent as the others (in a family of schemers he mostly tells what he feels and is a bad liar). He is the most childlike in his impulses and makes toys as a present for his father at Christmas. I do not feel like I am qualified enough to make any details than this on him, other than that it was the 60s and although he is still sympathetic any more examining would detriment a fine performance, which Terry certainly gives.

Lastly Alais. Poor Princess Alais played by the naturally beautiful Jane Merrow who the only pawn in this royal game and she knows it. “Kings, queens, knights everywhere and I’m the only pawn.” she says knowingly. In truth she has the most straight character development of the movie, going from the happy mistress and just-for-show fiancé to John, to a woman who knows what’s at stake and what would have to happen if in turn Henry would marry her. Her choice – which she tells to Henry who is contemplating an annulment from Eleanor – is that he has to kill his three living sons if he wants to marry her so their future sons can live. This shocks Henry, but she has merely seen the reality of the situation while Henry cannot see other than the hurt it would give Eleanor and the easy solution it would bring to his choice for an heir-apparent. Alais is kept out of all the serious plotting as we see her come out of her bedchamber any time there is ruckus of some kind, but she doesn’t ascend the stairs before her to higher ground. She is stuck below the stairs, under all the plotting and scheming, not knowing the context of Henry’s schemes so she does what she must – to use her limited power over him to survive.

The movie ends with a newly rejuvenated Henry sending Eleanor back to her prison. The two of them are happy together, smiling and laughing. After all the drama that has unfolded they take comfort in each other. Henry calls to her: “We shall never die!” and indeed one gets the feeling that if it were up to them the two of them would gladly live together forever as King and Queen. Indeed Eleanor declares this in the beginning: “Let’s deny them all and live forever.”


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