Just before Christmas in the year 1183, King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) knows the time has come for him to choose an heir to his throne. He has three surviving sons, Richard (Anthony Hopkins), John (Nigel Terry), and Geoffrey (John Castle), with his wife Eleanor of Aquatine (Katharine Hepburn). Henry ordered Eleanor imprisoned for organizing several civil wars against him, but he allows her to be released for holiday courts and other special events. Henry would prefer for John to inherit the throne, but Eleanor wants the crown to go to Richard, and Geoffrey isn’t happy about being overlooked by both parents.
When Eleanor arrives to join Henry, their sons, Henry’s mistress Princess Alais (Jane Merrow), and Alais’s brother Phillip II (Timothy Dalton), the King of France, for Christmas court at the family’s primary residence at Chinon, choosing an heir to the throne is the primary subject for discussion. Henry and Eleanor are both very conniving and do everything they can to get the son they want next in line for the throne, while Geoffrey is busy making plans of his own to be the next king. All of their schemes and plots unfold over the holiday, culminating with Henry deciding that none of his sons will do and he’d rather have his marriage to Eleanor annulled so he can marry Alais and have new sons. Henry throws all of his sons down in the wine cellar and plans to kill them, for the sake of protecting his future heirs with Alais, but Eleanor refuses to let that happen.
I’m not generally the biggest fan of these types of historical dramas, but The Lion in Winter is most definitely an exception to the rule. For all of the incredible roles Katharine Hepburn had the chance to play over the course of her career, trying to pick the absolute best of all of them isn’t an easy task, but it’s safe to put Eleanor of Aquatine pretty high on that list. It’s truly a role she was born to play; she’s an absolute tour de force. Not only is Katharine Hepburn absolutely phenomenal in it, she’s got an incredible supporting cast with Peter O’Toole, Anthony Hopkins, Timothy Dalton, Nigel Terry, and John Castle. Everybody involved in the film brought their “A” game. The script is full of razor-sharp dialogue and much more humor than you might expect. I keep trying to think of something I didn’t like about The Lion in Winter, but I just can’t think of anything. A truly magnificent film.