I know you want me; you know I want you

The Lion in Winter: yes, yes; a classic for generations; brilliant performances, pristine dialogue, etc. It’s a phenomenal movie. We know that. Rather than give it a review, which would be silly, I’ll attempt some critical analysis in the style of Todd Alcott (albeit not as well).

Here we go:

The Lion in Winter is about the faces we present to the world: both the literal composure of our face, and the facade that we present. The movie starts tight on Henry II’s face (Peter O’Toole) – “Come for me!”, he challenges: fifty years old but still hale enough to practice swordfighting with his youngest son, John. We see these same wild eyes and hear this same challenge in the climax of the film, when Henry faces off against three opponents at once. In that fight, as well, the camera stays tight on their faces rather than backing up to take in the footwork: Henry’s snarl; his opponents alternately terrified or stoic.

Richard, Henry’s eldest son, rides a joust in full armor when we first meet him; only after unhorsing his opponent does he remove his helmet, showing us his sweaty and driven face as he contemplates killing his fallen foe. Jeffrey (the schemer, the middle child) sits atop a beachside cliff, conducting war games. His face isn’t obscured, but it’s not his face that indicates his actions: it’s the men below, charging and wheeling and dying on his nod. These pawns are his body; the mailed form attached to his neck is just a vehicle.

(Also note: each of his sons is summoned in the same way: Henry’s steward has to call their name at least two or three times to break them from some reverie, signified by a crown-to-chin closeup. These men constantly scheme behind the masks that are their faces; when called to interact with the real world, it takes them a second to break free)

When we first meet Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katherine Hepburn), Henry’s wife, it is at a great remove: she sits by a window in her sumptuous prison cell as a herald near the door announces the Christmas court in Chinon that starts the story. She arrives via river longboat, a grand slow shot that starts with the boat distant and ends with it passing right by us. We do not have many close shots of Eleanor’s face until she and Henry have begun to spar, and even then no extreme close-ups (as Henry had) until her plots have fallen apart at the end of the first act. She regards herself in a hand-held mirror, her coiffed hair pulled out of its pins, and despairs. She is eleven years his senior; age has been worse to her than to Henry.

Age is another recurring theme of the movie, though that’s not much of a stretch. People refer to their ages multiple times. “I’m the oldest man I know,” Henry laments at one point. “I’ve got a decade on the pope!” Age in The Lion in Winter is a currency, a system of accounts for a pre-banking economy. Henry’s the oldest male, so he schemes and maneuvers with great success. But Eleanor is older than he is and frequently puts him on the wrong footing with one clever word. The sons triumph in proportion to their age – Richard, the “constant soldier” and great conqueror; Jeffrey, the schemer; John, the sniveling weakling.

And yet Philip II, King of France (Timothy Dalton)*, is younger than all of them save John, and he’s able to turn the tables on the entire family with little effort. Why? Because while the whole family craves the respect of age, they want the vigor of youth. Jeffrey wants Philip’s armies. Richard wants Philip in the carnal sense. And Henry wants peace with Philip: he (at 50) knows that Philip (at 18) can afford to start a war that France will take ten years to lose. In accounting terms, Philip’s youth gives him a great deal of credit and modest assets. Henry has substantial assets, but has leveraged himself into tremendous debt to get them.

(And don’t underestimate that debt. When Henry threatens to father another heir and disown his sons entirely, Eleanor invokes as strict a margin call as you’d ever find on the NYSE. “Suppose I hold you back for one [year]. I can; it’s possible. Suppose your first son dies? Ours did; it’s possible. Suppose you’re daughtered next? We were; that too is possible. How old is daddy then? What kind of spindly, ricket-ridden, milky, wizened, dim-eyed, gammy-handed, limpy line of things will you beget?” Henry has borrowed too much time; he’s now in too great a debt to build any further)

One last theme to touch on: the recurring presence of animals. Chinon is a Christmas court. The massive feast that Henry holds there to welcome his family and Philip requires peasant infrastructure to support. Livestock and domestic animals are always underfoot. When Henry and Eleanor emerge to greet Philip, they have to step around dogs and chickens to do so, while the trumpets sound their procession. Entering for dinner, the King and Queen pass through a pack of dogs lounging by the fire. As Henry lurches down the stairs from a confrontation with his sons, a lone dog scampers out of his way.

No one pauses or complains about, or even acknowledges, the animal presence in the castle. The animals belong there as much as the humans do. But it’s not that the animals are human (none of them have personalities); it’s that the humans themselves are animals. Eleanor calls her children “piglets.” She evaluates people like animals, examining their parts like a haggler (Richard’s eyes look “small and piggy”; Henry’s first mistress, Rosamund, had “fine teeth”). Everyone in the royal family is a wolf, constantly circling. There’s no scene which does not see the balance of power shift at least twice, if not four or six times.

And all that’s communicated through dialogue – some of the finest I’ve ever heard. Every single spoken line in the play, without exception, is an arrow pointing to the heart of the speaker or another character. There’s not a word that could be taken away. This is one to watch.

Ultimately, The Lion in Winter is about the continued evolution of humanity. Human beings share common ancestry with other mammals, yet it’s galling how little distance we’ve made from the pack and the struggle. “Of course he has a knife,” Eleanor says of her bloodthirsty son Richard. “We all have knives! It’s 1183 and we’re barbarians!” She means it as an invocation of distance – it’s eleven centuries since the time of Jesus and we’re little more than animals. Animals with human faces that we wear like masks, but animals nonetheless. And that statement creates a paradoxical reflection to the audience – it’s eleven centuries into the “Christian” era then, but it’s twenty centuries now. What progress has the species made?

______________________________
* A James Bond, reviving a role originated on stage by a Bond villain (Christopher Walken)

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2 Responses

  1. A great meditation on one of my top five movies.

    If you like historical fiction, the Sharon Kay Pennman series starting with “When Christ and His Saints Slept” is worth a read. “When Christ” starts with the civil war that follows the sinking of the White Ship; her most recent volume “The Devil’s Brood” takes us all the way through Henry’s death. She’s doing one more to cover the reigns of Richard and John.

    Pennman occasionally suffers from romantic sensibilities. Her dialogue is nowhere near as good as in Lion in Winter. But the depiction of everyday life during the time, the use of historical events in plotting, and the characterization are all good.

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