The conniving King Henry II decides to call a Christmas family reunion, with the secret intention of announcing a successor from his three sons all hungry for power. So, back to fold, return his wife Queen Eleanor, who had been imprisoned, and the three petulant princes: Richard, Geoffery and John. Even King Philip of France is coming, who also has his eyes on the prize.
A rousing episode of historical melodrama, lit up by two really big performances from Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole, and was followed with a handful of Oscars as due reward. It is also notable for the movie debuts of three theatrical actors as the irritable princes vying for their father’s favour — Nigel Terry, John Castle and a fierce, young Anthony Hopkins. While stagy in its make-up — long, talky scenes tumbling with intrigue and deception — director Anthony Harvey creates a splendid medieval milieu of blazing fires, drinking mead from stone flagons and cold, hard stone, just on the cusp of realism.
It’s a dark, forbidding setting for the various inter-family machinations that are to follow. O’Toole’s King Henry II, all stridency and bellows, favours his youngest Nigel Terry’s John (as in King John of Robin Hood notoriety). His wheedling, not-to-say needling wife, given vituperative fire by the brilliant Hepburn, favours her beloved eldest son Anthony Hopkins’ Richard (as in King Richard the Lionheart). John Castle’s nonchalant Prince Geoffery sits in the middle, the model of the lost middle-child syndrome. Indeed, this lot make for a stark Freudian model of family position.
It is the interplay, especially between Hepburn’s authority and conniving, and O’Toole’s volcanic spirit, twisting the story like serpent’s coils, that makes it so compelling. Like Shakespeare in Hollywood language, grand, silly and rip-snorting.
Big flamboyant historical drama with two powerhouse performances from the Hepburn and O'Toole.