I recently had the pleasure of watching the extraordinary 1968 film The Lion In Winter, which relates a (fictional) meeting of the medieval Plantagenet family during the winter of 1183 at Chinon. Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katherine Hepburn) is released from imprisonment by her estranged husband Henry II (Peter O’Toole) for this family gathering, which also includes their three sons: Richard (Anthony Hopkins), Geoffrey (John Castle) , and the dim-witted and utterly craven John (Nigel Terry) . Also present for the festivities is the clever and manipulative Philip, King of France (Timothy Dalton) and his sister Alais (Jane Merrow), who has become Henry’s mistress and hopes to one day become his new wife. The scheming and plotting never lets up, but eventually Henry lets his sons go and returns his wife (somewhat reluctantly) to her imprisonment.
Beneath all of the sniping and incredibly witty dialogue (I have rarely seen a film so eminently quotable), there simmers a cauldron of family resentment and cruelty that always threatens to break out into open political rebellion. This is an enormously powerful family, yet it is also one that seems unable to control its own internal dynamics, let alone the substantial domains over which they are supposed to be overlords. O’Toole’s Henry is too hot-headed and almost hysterical to be an effective agent of control, and Hepburn’s Eleanor too full of bile and bitterness to resist the urge to needle and nettle him at every turn, driving him to ever greater and more intense fits of pique and rage. The films is a somewhat terrifying glimpse into the machinations, recriminations, and plotting that can threaten to destroy even the most powerful of families and dynasties.
It is also a searing portrait of one of the greatest and most tragic love affairs of the medieval world. Eleanor and Henry turned no few heads when they married, considering the fact that Eleanor had been married to the French king immediately prior to her union with the future English king made no secret of her general unhappiness with the French Louis’ bedroom performance. Theirs was truly a marriage of equals, and this is reflected in this film, as Eleanor/Katherine, despite her imprisonment, nevertheless gives Henry/Peter everything she’s got, maneuvering and manipulating their children in order to hit him where it hurts the most: his legacy.
This film is also one of those that I would define as exquisitely queer, one of those films that wears its queerness unapologetically on its sleeve. This ranges from Eleanor, who is as bitchy a stage queen as has ever graced a film (Hepburn is clearly having the time of her life in the role) to the tragically flawed relationship between the emotionally distraught Richard and the cold and cruel Philip (who disavows that he ever loved the English prince, a claim that we in the audience are left to doubt). There is something undeniably appealing about the French King, due in no small part to Dalton’s almost feline features, which lend the flawed monarch a measure of grace that helps to ameliorate his obvious delight in cruelly torturing the sexually conflicted Richard.
Perhaps surprisingly, Lion does manage to say something about the medieval world, a world full lot plotting, backbiting, and violence. For better or worse, the Plantagenet dynasty was one of the most powerful and influential of the Middle Ages, and this film offers a searing portrait of the convoluted loves, hates, and fears that drove these men and women to commit acts of betrayal that would shape the fortunes of England and of Europe, for generations to come. Indeed, it is important to remember that the Plantagenet dynasty would rule England until Richard III, who lost his crown to the Tudor prince Henry (later King Henry VII) on Bosworth Field.
Just as importantly, it also suggests that the movements of the great and powerful are often as hopelessly banal and selfish as their common-born compatriots. These figures may be larger than life–and the opening credit sequence helps to underscore this, as well as a measure of the alien-ness of the medieval world–but they are also flesh and and blood, with all of the sexual energies that such flawed fleshly beings frequently have. The tragedy that unfolds, then, is not just a matter of family, it is also a harbinger of the strife and bloodshed that will continue to tear England apart. In the final analysis, this film suggests that sex, that most ineffable and terrifying of human traits, that drives the engines of history.