Set during a Christmas holiday in 1183, the plot sees the family of King Henry II uniting at Chinon to celebrate the feast days and decide which of his sons will succeed him as ruler of England.
Katharine Hepburn appears as the calculating Eleanor of Aquitaine, who plots Henry's downfall and the ascension of her favorite son Richard, played by Anthony Hopkins. Henry's choice is his youngest son John; an early role for Nigel Terry, who later played King Arthur in Excalibur.
Meanwhile, each son has his own plans. If Richard succeeds Henry, he will also receive Henry's live-in mistress, Alais — as played by Jane Merrow — someone he wants nothing to do with. John wants the throne simply because he is there, but is portrayed as a feeble man, easily swept up in the machinations of his family. John Castle is noteworthy as middle son Geoffrey. Knowing that he will never be king and, at best, will be Chancellor and, at worst, be killed, he plays all sides against each other for his amusement.
In the midst of all of this plotting is special Christmas guest Timothy Dalton as King Phillip II of France, who has plans of his own for the troublesome Henry. He demands the succession issue be settled and Alais, his half-sister, be married to the heir before the end of the holiday.
The film, based on the play by James Goldman, is almost an action movie with words instead of punches. The quips and barbs come quick and the retorts as powerful as any parry or dodge. Peter O'Toole's bluster filled performance as Henry II is full of the excess and spoiled brat nature you would expect from an absolute monarch. Hepburn is also a delight as the imprisoned Eleanor. In fact, the cast is uniformly brilliant, giving each line gusto as the family tears itself apart over the inheritance, past grievances and Richard's secret. Terry, Hopkins and Dalton were all new to the screen, but hold their own against O'Toole's ferocity and Hepburn's resolve.
Ably directed by Anthony Harvey, the film creates a convincing 12th Century environment for the performers, but largely stays out of their way. This is a film that lives and dies on the strength of the cast. At the same time, it never comes off too stagey either.
Though based in history, the story plays loose with the truth for the dramatic license. Instead, we see holiday family strife writ large. Only in this case, the father can legally have his sons put to death and ill-chosen words spoken in haste can be considered treason. But even without the geopolitical stakes, a tense family Christmas is something immediately recognizable.
But few family squabbles are so well-written or performed.