The Lion in Winter Movie Review
The Lion in Winter is a 1968 historical drama film directed by Anthony Harvey and starring Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn. It is an amazing film and undoubtedly one of the best movies of the decade.
The Lion in Winter is set in 1183 and it follows Henry II and his family, but it mostly focuses on his marriage with Eleanor of Aquitaine. I was blown away by the immense quality of this work. First and foremost, I am and never have been a fan of historical films and especially the ones set in the Middle Ages. However, this one I absolutely loved for various reasons. The obvious ones are the great focus that it has. It never has any wars, battles and action in it, at least for the majority of the running time. And it never has any violence in it. That was great as I usually dislike those things.
What it has on the other hand is great dialogue and emotion in spades. The dialogue in particular is the reason why this movie works so well. It is just so phenomenal and filled with so many quotable and witty lines. The film has such a talkative approach to it with one scene of just the two spouses talking running for at least 15 minutes or so. And I loved that as I love talkative films and especially those that are this smart and this sophisticated. Instead of focusing on politics which is the usual route for these period flicks, it focuses on the relationships in this family and that is why it is such a great, refreshing picture which is such a great family drama above all.
The character development is absolutely magnificent with the relationship between the husband and wife being just spectacular and the film’s highlight. The Lion in Winter is basically the medieval version of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe‘ which isn’t to say that the film lacks originality, but that the relationship at the center of the film is similar in style and the relationship in the aforementioned film is the only one that can be said to be better than this one when 60s are concerned. King Henry II is such a great character and you can easily see his pain as he is so relatable. Queen Eleanor is very mean at first, but once you get to know her better, you see that there is far more there than what is on the surface. She is a woman that has gone through a lot and just the scene where she breaks down in tears sums her up the best.
They are fantastic together and their fights are at once funny, but at other times also heartbreaking and truly sad. But they still love each other despite all of those hateful comments and they are the best example of one thing in which I myself believe whole-heartedly – those who truly love each other are capable of hurting each other the most. That is evident in their relationship and you can easily see that they love each other so much and it is such a great love-hate relationship.
The three boys are solid. I wanted more from them besides Richard who is very well realized and he shares many great scenes. But the film is about Eleanor and Henry first and foremost and that is why others did not get more treatment. And that is fine as they aren’t as important. But as I said, Richard is very good and what they did with him in terms of his sexuality is also very interesting, albeit historically dodgy as is the entire film.
Now, the acting. The Lion in Winter has a turn from then very young Anthony Hopkins and he is excellent here, but it also has two of the best performances of the entire decade in Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn. Peter O’Toole is too young for the role, but he gave such a terrific performance that shamefully lost at the Oscars that year. He really surprised me as I did not expect such a fantastic performance from him, but he delivered and is great in every scene he is in. But this is Katharine Hepburn’s vehicle and she steals the show from admittedly terrific O’Toole. She’s a great actress for sure, but what she did here is just miraculous to behold. She created this complex character and delivered in every single scene which is saying a lot as the role is extremely difficult with her character going through an emotional rollercoaster. The scene in which she breaks down in tears is the highlight of her acting skills and she had to do so much here. This is without a doubt her finest performance ever, but it is also one of the best performances ever in a film. She is simply that good and the fact that Peter O’Toole is also magnificent really says a lot about the acting caliber of this movie and it truly is one of the greats.
The Lion in Winter is a technically terrific film with great cinematography, some really memorable imagery and a great use of interior design. It also has a superb score that deservedly got an Oscar, it has great costumes, some superb set designs and is stupendously well edited and paced with never a wasted or abrupt scene. The emotional investment is evident and there are some truly powerful sequences with the ending being just so satisfying. The film is also really well directed and phenomenally adapted from its source material. It can easily be recognized to have originated from a play, but the movie is still a movie with all of the technical aspects being very strong. The film is also highly memorable with some moments being unforgettable.
The tone is the only small problem I have with this film. It is in its first half very comedic and often even verging on becoming a full comedy, but later on it becomes a straight drama that loses its humor and is way more serious. That does feel jarring a bit, but I still loved that the film was both dramatic and comedic and I loved its humor. It is just terrific across the board. Hepburn and her character basically carries the whole picture on her shoulders when humor is concerned and some of the lines she says are just so quotable and simply hilarious. I loved the film’s meta humor a lot with the line “A knife! He’s got a knife! Of course he has a knife, he always has a knife, we all have knives! It’s 1183 and we’re barbarians.” simultaneously being so wonderfully self-aware and very funny. Hepburn has such a brilliant comic delivery in the film.
The banter between the spouses is so good, but those scenes also have a big heart. That whole very long, but very involving conversation of theirs when they insult each other in many hurtful ways and seemingly end their relationship is by far the highlight of the entire film. It sticked with me long after I’ve seen it and I will remember it for a long time as it is that good. But all of the scenes after that one are also brilliant with the ending being powerful and some of the scenes in the dungeons being visually memorable. The Lion in Winter has just fantastic character interactions all around and the themes are excellent as the film wonderfully explores the failures of a marriage and it showcases how even the most powerful people in the world have personal problems. The various conversations the two have about their children are also powerful as they show deep dissatisfaction parents could have with their children while also the kids themselves can feel forgotten and rejected. All of those themes are definitely here and the film is just beautifully written from beginning to end.
The Lion in Winter received three Oscars and all three are well deserved with Actress, Screenplay and Score all being magnificent. But it deserved to win Best Picture as well and it is such a shame that it lost to such a mediocre movie. This is to me even an underrated film because, although highly appreciated, it is still rarely on the decade best lists when it so clearly is one of the greatest works of the 1960s and it just might be the finest film of 1968. This is a classic and one of the finest films of all time.