The year is 1183 and the castle of King Henry II is a dark and dank place during the winter months. You would not think so by the opening moments where an energetic King (Peter O’Toole) duels his young boy John (Nigel Terry). His mistress takes in the scene from afar. On first glance, this whole scenario seems pleasant enough, but that would be far from the truth.
Young John is the King’s favorite, but his aged yet cunning wife Eleanor (Katharine Hepburn
) has a special affection for the eldest brother Richard (Anthony Hopkins), who she desires to take the throne. Stuck between the two favorites is middle child Geoffrey (John Castle), who has plans of his own. Bring the French King Phillip II (Timothy Dalton) into the equation and the situation becomes even messier than before. What follows is an elaborate web of lies, deceptions, side deals, false motives, eavesdropping, and of course backstabbing. Henry and Eleanor constantly battle back and forth as their sons bicker among themselves. One big unhappy family to be sure.
Henry tries to marry off his mistress (Jane Merrow) to Richard to satisfy King Phillip, but his son will not have it. Next, Henry tries to compromise with Phillip only to learn that his sons were planning to gang up against him. Now he cannot trust any of them, and they find themselves in the dungeon. He makes a new plan to get remarried to his mistress so that he might have another son to be king, but his other sons will be a threat so long as they live. His dilemma is evident, but he cannot bear to kill them. Things seem to go back to the way they always were with Eleanor going back behind bars and Henry playfully barking at her. All’s well that ends well perhaps.
Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn were certainly two titans in this film. O’Toole, whether he is roaring or confiding in his former love, does everything with purpose and bravado. He does show his soft, vulnerable underbelly at times, though, as a man advanced in years. Hepburn on her part is absolutely acerbic, oftentimes governing the tone of the film with her barbs and snide comments. And yet with her, there is also at least a few instances of true humanity. She and Henry seem to be made for each other and their boys are seemingly just as loathsome and underhanded.