Many families are a complicated Molotov cocktail of egos, resentments, and unresolved complications. You do what you can to get along for most of the year, but holiday gatherings have a tendency to exacerbate things: First there’s your dad, who hates you. Nothing you can do about that. Then there’s your mom and sister, who haven’t spoken in a few weeks but will spend all day pretending like that thing that happened never happened. Your cousin will show up late and take his yearly opportunity to brag about how he went to a better college than you did. Your aunt will get drunk and make you watch funny dogs on YouTube until dinner. And how long has grandpa been so racist? It’s tricky, to say the least. Maybe it’s better to just have it all out. Unload all the dirty laundry, throw some food at each other, and move on with your lives. That’s essentially The Lion in Winter, Anthony Harvey’s 1968 film based on James Goldman’s Broadway play of the same name. It’s the story of a family gathering gone wrong — or, in this case, a royal family gathering gone wrong.
While there’s plenty of real-life historical context to The Lion in Winter (namely that Eleanor and Richard once led a failed revolt against Henry in response to various treasons, infidelities, and the alleged murder of a Catholic archbishop), the layman only needs to know that some drama has gone down that has the entire family gunning for each other’s throats. Consequently, each of them approaches the Christmas court with their own agenda: Richard, whom Eleanor favors, is prepared to go to war for the crown (a war he’d very likely win). John, whom Henry prefers, is an entitled shitbag who expects his dad to give him what he wants. Geoffery resents his parents for their indifference toward him and sabotages his brothers’ plans from behind the scenes. Phillip, sick of Henry’s condescension and eager to prove his mettle, plots with Geoffrey to provoke an internal war. Then there’s Eleanor, who just wants Henry to suffer for years of mistreatment and doesn’t seem to care who wins as long as he loses. The whole film is essentially a series of dramatic gestures and vindictive arguments — just like your holiday gatherings!
That said, it’s easy to get lost in all the backstabbing and character machinations. Alliances crumble minutes after they’re made. Love and devotion are sworn as easily as they’re taken away. It seems that these people will say anything to get what they want, and all they seem to want is for everyone else to be miserable. But that’s the fun. There’s a great late-night scene in Phillip’s bedroom in which prince after prince approaches him with his own secret plan for victory, not knowing that the others are hidden in various parts of the room (Eleanor even lampshades it later: “Don’t you know? There was a scene with beds and tapestries, and many things got said”). It’s such a beautifully absurd scene that we almost lose track of what’s supposed to be at stake. In fact, the real irony is that all this bombast amounts to very little: no one dies, Henry never chooses an heir, and Eleanor is sent back to her prison until Easter. Everyone sits on their pain and anger for another year. Family!