We Love… Christmas: ‘The Lion in Winter’


Illustration by Adeline Pericart

Throughout December we’ll be adding more Christmas films we love – so keep an eye on the website and feel free to add any of your own…


The Lion in Winter

Geoff McEvoy

Christmas is normally a time when our capacity for saccharin is tested to breaking point, but The Lion in Winter is a richer seasonal treat, with the pleasing tang of something bitter. Not that it looks that way at the start. The credits roll to a series of pictures of decaying medieval gargoyles (not Christmassy), then the scariest Gregorian chanting you ever heard kicks in (not Christmassy) and it soon become clear that the film has a very low budget (definitely not Christmassy). Or maybe they just spent all their money on casting because they certainly put together a great line up of actors: Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn, and (making their screen debuts) Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton. And as soon as someone speaks all your reservations disappear because they have given these actors a wonderfully sharp and witty script, a perfect combination for some festive fun.

‘What shall we hang, the holly or each other?’

It’s obvious why Aaron Sorkin made this Jed Barlett’s favourite film in The West Wing because, like his writing for that show, The Lion in Winter finds the perfect balance between hilarious quick fire exchanges and powerful emotional drama. Like your first glass of mulled wine it’s a heady brew. Henry II (O’Toole) rules England and most of France and he has decided to bring his feuding family together for a Christmas court to appoint his successor. Among the guests are his three sons Richard (Hopkins), Geoffrey and John, Philip II of France (Dalton), and his estranged wife Eleanor (Hepburn) who he’s had locked up in Salisbury Tower for the past ten years. So things are set for an explosively dysfunctional Christmas.

‘Hush dear, mother’s fighting’

What makes it work so well as a Christmas film is that, despite the fact that they are fighting over the throne, the characters true motives are all so familiar. The youngest son is a spoilt pouting teenager and the middle child is bitterly resentful of the affection lavished on his siblings. At the centre of it all are Henry and Eleanor constantly scheming and manipulating to undermine each other. They’ve been at it so long that they’ve forgotten how to relate to each other any other way, so they torture each other almost out of habit – Eleanor even seems to torture herself – as they try to find the best way to inflict emotional pain. If one member of this family loves another then that love becomes a weapon to be used against them.

“There’s everything in life, but hope.”

So I guess there’s no denying that, even though it is very funny, this is an anti-Christmas film. Henry and Eleanor may understand the value of peace on earth and goodwill towards men, they may even aspire to it, but it’s just not in them. And yet after all the screaming matches and the knife fights, the exchange of threats between rictus grins and the collapse into despair, you’re still left smiling. Because at the end of the day they’re alive and they have each other and for one day that’s enough (very Christmassy).


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