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the lion in winter is a perfect christmas movie
it’s christmas movie week here at griefbacon, which is exactly what it sounds like. if you want to read about Carol, or Love Actually, or a bunch of movies about parties and other people’s houses including Eyes Wide Shut and Little Women and Metropolitan and Reds, all of which are very normal christmas movies. for now, here’s a movie that might just be the very best answer to “what’s your favorite christmas movie?”
The Lion in Winter (1968)
The Lion in Winter is—genuinely, canonically—a Christmas story, even if it’s a Christmas story that desperately wants to be Richard II. It’s a big, self-satisfied, booming-voiced butterball turkey of a costume melodrama, but it also features two incandescent performances in the lead roles, and Anthony Hopkins being young for the entire five minutes he was ever young before he was permanently old. It contains several of the greatest petty-King-James-Bible-rip-off lines ever written, and the only performance in which Katharine Hepburn has ever been convincingly straight (yes, even including The Philadelphia Story, which is a movie about a bunch of lesbians having lesbian drama where two of the main lesbians are Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart). This movie is very silly, and trying very hard to be Shakespeare, but it gets closer than anything has any real right to, and it does so by being much weirder, and nastier, and wider-hearted than its surface bombast wants you to think it is. It’s a Christmas movie because it’s set on Christmas, but it’s also a Christmas movie because it’s strange, and mean, and lonely, hateful and huge-hearted all at the same time, dressed up in a stupid Renn Faire costume while trying to solve the unsolvable equations of family and time and love.
A lot of people love this movie, and one thing they would probably all agree on is that this movie is always great, and Christmas is often unpleasant. If this is your favorite Christmas movie, you maybe know all the ways in which the movie both embellishes and ignores history, and you maybe also know how much Pauline Kael disliked it in her initial review, but the reasons you like this movie probably have little to do with the twelfth-century wars of English succession or with the state of American cinema in the late 1960s. They might, however, have to do with the fact that Christmas is a rough holiday, and the holidays are a difficult time of year.
Taking place across a single Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the action of the film concerns the conflicts between King Henry II, his estranged wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine—whom he has imprisoned for trying to murder him but lets out of prison every year at Christmas— and their three garbage sons, Richard, Geoffrey, and John (The Lion in Winter is basically a prestige adaptation of this article).
As historical dramas almost always are, it’s wildly anachronistic. Everything about it pins it to the exact year when it was made (1968), from its nervous, showy homoeroticism to the adolescent pouting of a bunch of young British male actors just recently come of age in the era of the Angry Young Men. The relationships are based on somewhat verifiable history—Henry II really did imprison his wife and several of his sons with her for treason after they attempted to overthrow him, and the succession conflict between those sons really did lead to open warfare—but at the same time they’re almost comically modern. Every grudge and interpersonal conflict in this movie has seen an automobile and knows who Elvis is. No one in the twelfth century sounded like Katharine Hepburn, whose mid-Atlantic society sneer is as static and exactly dated as a photograph.
But no one in the past sounded like what movies that try to get them right sound like, either. People who lived as long ago as Eleanor of Aquitaine were so different from us, from what we understand as people, now and here in our own wired-up, wide-eyed, smooth-skinned age, that they may as well have been a different species. Twelfth-century humans are a type of extinct bird no living person has ever seen, unknowable as dinosaur bones. The past may be able to tell us a little about the present, but the present can tell us almost nothing about the past. There is some evidence that the real Henry II would have celebrated Christmas, but almost no way to know what it looked like, or meant, to him or to those who sat around a table with him, in the dark winter days at the end of 1183, in a town on a river in France, where tourists still visit this same castle structure nearly a millenium later.
The vast majority of inventions that undergird the very shape and meaning of our lives today didn’t exist when Eleanor of Aquitaine died in 1204. What can we possibly know about how a woman who lived her whole life without indoor plumbing understood love and loyalty? What can we possibly know about how people who would be long dead before the printing press upended the lives of their ancestors felt about their parents squabbling at the dinner table, or what parents, or arguments, or dinner, or tables, meant to any of them? The details of any era are not really details; they are the foundations that hold up the buildings. Technology is less our clothing than it is our skin. The only story we can ever tell is one about the present; the only thing our stories about the past can do is show how we understand ourselves, where we would like to believe we came from, and which things we want to claim are permanent.
The Lion in Winter doesn’t really take place in the 12th century, any more than a stripper dressed up as a fireman can really save you from a fire. It takes place in 1968, and it takes place right now. It takes place in this week of this year, and this week of last year and next year, too, as crowds gather at train stations and airports, as cars clog up the highways between the cities and the suburbs to drive the interstate backward from adulthood to childhood. It takes place in every home where someone is setting the table, in every grocery store where someone is standing in line, in every apartment where a new couple is anxiously getting ready to host one or both of their parents, and in every group chat where siblings are resentfully double-tapping heart and “haha” reactions. In a castle in France in 1183, where indoor heating hasn’t yet been invented, a bunch of family members, all of whom are to one degree or another estranged, gather for Christmas dinner, to bring up old grudges, and whine behind one another’s backs.
This film shares most of its soul not with a history textbook, but with seasonal episodes of half-hour sitcoms in which somebody has to go visit their family. The Lion in Winter is a prestige costume drama about a king in the twelfth century, but it’s also a petty soap opera about horrible people who have to spend the holidays together. That’s Goldman’s joke, and it’s very heavy-handed, but it works like a new car with a full tank of gas: Even in the 1100s, even among kings and princes and wars over who married whom, going home for Christmas still sucks, and your parents are still just as divorced, and your siblings just as annoying, as they are right now.
Hepburn and O’Toole are glorious in the movie, in a way that reminds you what the words movie star are supposed to mean when shoved together into a single ubiquitous noun. Their combined wattage could power a whole continent’s cities. Hepburn is in her early sixties here, which isn’t really all that old, but compared to the smooth-faced leading women in movies today and even mostly then, she’s so gloriously ancient, and so devastatingly sexy, that just watching her feels like getting away with something. O’Toole is wearing ridiculous old age makeup in order to not appear twenty-five years her junior (just four years earlier he had played this same character, Henry II, as a young man in Becket), but his performance is so dangerous and electrifying, so much about menace and vulnerability and fury, a man who wants desperately to be a large-hearted, jovial dad of a king but knows he lives in a world made of knives, that you don’t merely forget how silly his makeup is, but decide it must somehow be part of the whole brilliant thing he’s doing.
Henry and Eleanor hate each other, and the movie ends with them hating each other. They have some enormously romantic scenes together, and they also each very sincerely try to murder the other over the course of the movie. The script doesn’t bother to try and tie these dissonant impulses—history said these two people hated each other at this point, but this is a movie and you want to see the two leads have a love scene—up in a neat bow. It leaves it like that; we hate people and we love them at the same time, we have the same arguments and we don’t resolve anything, we’re vicious and petty to the people in our families and nothing comes out of it except agreeing to do it all again next year. The stuff that doesn’t make sense in the script, and in the movie, is what’s best about it, what most feels like Shakespeare, and like Christmas. Sometimes the ways in which we’re awful to one another are one more piece of the big mysteries, tangled up in the same junk drawer with the miracles.
The movie ends with nothing changing, which is usually how Christmas ends, too. Henry and Eleanor try to kill each other, and fail, and promise to try again next year. He sends her back to the prison where he’s locked her up for treason, and as she gets in the boat to go there, they say goodbye with real tenderness. Everybody makes plans for next Christmas, which means that everybody is still alive. Sometimes hate is all that sustains us, and sometimes that makes it not very different from love. Our feelings for the people who make up our families only accumulate, and rarely shed. Love is a prison but it’s also a carnival, a fun house, and a drug trip at a Renn Faire where the guys playing the knights decide to start doing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf from memory, which is also what this movie is like, and what’s so great about it. It’s a Christmas movie because this holiday is absolutely gutting, and also very silly, a fable about hate and love co-existing, and a big campy costume drama, very important and at the same time not important at all.
The question of succession isn’t resolved at the end. Nothing is resolved. It’s Christmas, so all that happens is that it’s over. There’s no solution; all of their sons are garbage, and, as Eleanor departs, Henry suggests they should just try and live forever. He’s joking but he isn’t, and, in the last shots of the film, with the light pulling rusty gold down over the landscape as Eleanor’s boat rows smoothly away, O’Toole breaks into near-hysterical, and seemingly joyful, laughter, jumping up and down on the riverbank, an absurd figure in his old-age makeup and heavy costume. It’s all a crooked, horrible, small-stakes game, love, and family, and holidays, and keeping ourselves alive for one more year, but it’s the only game in town. If the only thing that keeps us alive sometimes is spite, well, maybe there’s a romance to that too. Love is the haunted house that costs forty dollars but guarantees that you’ll die. We show up to the arcade again in the sunlight of whatever next day comes, scrubbed clean of the blood from the night before, ready to get our hearts smashed up by the people we’ve loved the longest and hated the longest, even if that’s just ourselves, feeling so lucky to get one more chance at it. We love one another and we die of it, but it’s also what keeps us alive.
this is part of christmas movie week at griefbacon, something I’m doing right now but probably won’t ever do again. xo