Thursday, April 14, 2016

British History in Film | Becket and The Lion in Winter

Becket (1964)

The Pillars of the Earth covers the bloody conflict to see who would succeed Henry I as king. His nephew Stephen is in control for most of the mini-series, but it closes with Henry's young grandson, Henry II finally taking the throne. Although the novel apparently goes farther in history and includes the events of Peter Glenville's film, Becket.

Peter O'Toole is the adult Henry II, who's in a conflict with the Roman Catholic Church. This is a recurring theme, since Henry I experienced the same trouble and - according to Pillars of the Earth anyway - it was the Church's attempt to put a friendlier king into power that caused the whole succession crisis in the first place. In Becket, Henry II irritates the Church further by filling England's top clerical position with his childhood buddy, Thomas Becket. Unfortunately for Henry, Becket begins to take his role seriously, instead of just being the puppet that Henry expected.

It's a great film that's lushly directed and superbly acted. It depicts a fascinating relationship between these two, extremely flawed men, one of whom outgrows the other to disastrous consequences. It's really a medieval version of That Was Then, This Is Now, except that it's really good.

The Lion in Winter (1968)

Not a true sequel to Becket, but it sure feels that way with O'Toole reprising his role as an older Henry II. Where Becket was an excellent relationship story though, Lion in Winter is a drawn-out, family melodrama. O'Toole and Katherine Hepburn are Acting, dagnabbit, and they want to make sure you know it. There's an interesting political drama in there somewhere, but it gets lost in the screwed-up relationship of the leads that we're supposed to care about for some reason.

One of the main things they're arguing about is who's going to follow Henry as king. Hepburn's Eleanor of Aquitaine wants eldest son Richard on the throne, but Henry supports youngest boy John. No one cares about middle-child Geoffrey, except for his buddy Philip, the new king of France. (John Gielgud played Philip's dad in Becket.)

Luckily, the sons are all great. Anthony Hopkins is a tough, but deeply troubled Richard. John Castle is delicious as the scheming Geoffrey. And Nigel Terry is perfectly sniveling as young Prince John. Timothy Dalton is also captivating as Philip. Their performances all kept me going even as O'Toole and Hepburn pushed me away.

Next week, you know who wins the throne. Eleanor gets her way, but Richard goes on a crusade that leaves the defense of his kingdom to outlaws.

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