Aside from her gender, Eleanor of Aquitaine had the attributes of a great king: culture, wit and wealth. But because she was a woman, she was reduced to conspiring with her sons to unseat her husband, King Henry Plantagenet II of England.
This family maelstrom is reimagined in Showtime’s The Lion in Winter.
The producers wisely used the screenplay James Goldman adapted from his own stage play. That script won Goldman a 1968 Academy Award, and Katherine Hepburn also won for best actress as the frustrated Eleanor to Peter O’Toole’s Henry. This cast is equally able.
Patrick Stewart makes great work of the heights of power and ego and the lows of near homicide required of Henry. Glenn Close, as Eleanor, goes toe to toe with Stewart, though at times she strays near to Cruella De Vil territory in her effort to dominate the screen as a scheming diva.
It’s Christmas of 1183, and Henry has let Eleanor out of her imprisonment for the holiday. The king locked up his queen 10 years before, for her futile support of an unsuccessful overthrow attempt by two of Henry’s sons.
Though a voracious conqueror — the kingdom at that time included all of the British Isles and half of France — Henry doesn’t have the heart to kill his queen and heirs for their treason. He’s spent 10 years trying to train the youngest, John (Rafe Spall), for the crown — only to have him come up a simple, whoring twit.
Henry’s choice of an heir is pressed this holiday, as King Phillip of France (Johathan Rhys-Meyers) has arrived to press Henry for a royal match for his sister, Alais (Julia Vysotsky), who has been a part of Henry’s court for more than a decade and now is his mistress. Henry wants to find a way to keep his mistress and ensure his kingdom remains complete after his death.
Goldman’s dialog just crackles through the scenes of plotting and bickering. This intelligent script is enthralling with its schemes, alliances and, miraculously, its basic tale of equal parts love and bitterness between Eleanor and Henry.
The cinematography is dark, like the time, but often mimics the candlelit quality of the paintings of Georges de la Tour. It’s a great sociological study for adults.
The Lion in Winter will debut May 23 at 7:30 p.m. ET/PT.