Notes on Lion in Winter
The Lion is Henry II, one of England’s longest reigning and successful kings. The year is 1183, a few decades before the Magna Carta. Winter is Christmastime- a joyous family get-together. Hahahaha The setting is in the middle of France, the castle at Chinon on the banks of the Vienne just before it runs into the Loire. Eleanor, who owns a chunk of southwestern France called the Aquitaine, arrives by boat across the Channel from her house arrest in merry England proper- near Salisbury and Stonehenge.
Tolstoy opens Anna Karenina with the famous observations that Every happy family is happy in the same way, and every unhappy family is unhappy in a different way.
Henry’s family is unhappy. Eleanor of Acquitaine, formerly married to King Louis of France, is now married to Henry, but has been kept in house arrest for ten years. Many parts of what we now call France belong to England, including the Aquitaine, which came with marriage to Eleanor. The new young king of France, Phillipe, is angry with Henry. Phillipe’s sister had been sent with a dowry to England 16 years before, to marry one of Henry’s sons, and thereby eventually become Queen of England. A political marriage of course. But she has not been married, instead Alais is Henry’s mistress and true love. The three sons are vying for the crown. You know Richard as Richard the Lionhearted from the Robin Hoods story. John you know as the bad Prince John, Richard’s brother, in Robin Hood. After Richard dies, John is the king who signs the Magna Carta in 1215.
Prior to Christmas 1181, Henry has already waged argument with the Church over his marriages and control of the church’s assets. He has had Thomas Beckett murdered and done public absolution for that subject of another famous play/movie Beckett.
As with any British history, you can pile up more details. DO if you wish. But I would like you to view Lion in Winter in terms of the discussions and their structure, not the history of the events. The movie did not receive three Oscars for its history. It’s the drama. The Oscars were for Hepburn as Best Actress and the music and the screenplay. It had other nominations including best picture (beat by Oliver, a feel-good musical version of Dicken’s OliverTwist). You do not need to fully understand the lands and riches in the arguments to follow the flow of the arguments. “Bellow back”, Henry invites young Phillipe. The lies and verbal betrayals ramp up and ramp and up. Pain is a raw sword, emotional pain, wrought with words. Love and land are the ultimate rewards, neither tangible in most of the arguments. “WE breed wars, we carry it like syphilis in us.” says the Queen. With her tongue and wit, the Queen still rules despite her imprisonment. The reverses of tide due to thrusts and parries of words, not swords, turn the battle back and forth. If you do this, I’ll do that.
Unlike traditional story-telling, this narrative is not running a course toward a resolution. This story is all about the interaction, not the result. The writer must assume we know our British history. The Lion Henry was a great king, by kingly standards. Richard will succeed, we all know it, then John who rules badly enough to have to give up some monarchal powers at Runnymede in 1215.
This is a personal portrayal. How would a great King spend Christmas, with the family? How does a wife get along with a mistress when marriages are for convenience, not love. Or does love enter in? And love of what- land, people, parents? Do not follow the arguments exactly, they are full of lies anyway. Follow who is trying to do what with their persuasion. Henry says it right up front, we are going to argue and scream and finally work out a deal. And brother do they argue and scream. There are cold emotions and hot words. There are hot emotions and cold words.
Perhaps the most common rhetorical tool in Lion in Winter is making a speech to one person, when the intent is mostly it affect on a bystander, sometimes one listening from a closet, sometimes one who has asked to observe the interaction. It is a persuasion apparently aimed elsewhere, but with a target to the side.
Another great tool is what is not said. When one person says, “I love you” and the other does not return the sentiment, the silence speaks. Henry claims to have won a verbal battle with Phillip because he has revealed nothing. Richard complains “ You never called me, You never said my name…” At the end, what is resolved? What is said about who will be king? He know from history, but the lack of resolution sets us up for, well, for Easter. These arguments go on and on, but they are often resolved- by life, love, death ,and history. Ever by argument? Or is it just words words words.
In perspective, Henry’s marital problems to be resolved by papal annulment are three hundred years before Henry the Eighth and his. Henry II has his Becket, and Henry the Eighth has his Thomas More (A Man for All Seasons). In the later case, England splits from the Church, and the Church of England is establish, the translation of the Bible in English (King James Bible 1511).
The disapproval of parents for children, the diversity of siblings- these are perennial themes. Not many successful dramas have so many unlikable characters. Each deserves some admiration from us. A common struggle in life is the mismatch of our attraction and our admiration. Henry and Eleanor portray this with uncommon depth and realism.
Yes- Henry is played by the same Peter Toole who was at the Academy Awards last week with is eighth nomination. Yes, King Phillipe is played by Timothy Dalton, who was later James Bond. Yes, Richard is played by Anthony Hopkins who later ate people in Silence of the Lambs, and many other huge roles.
This movie is a gold mine of great lines, wonderful sentiments and observations of people in power. After thirty years, I still do not fully comprehend it. The playwright’s brother is the author of Princess Bride. Imagine Christmas dinner at THEIR house.