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Christmas 1183--an aging and conniving King Henry II plans a reunion where he hopes to name his successor. He summons the following people for the holiday: his scheming but imprisoned wife, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine; his mistress, Princess Alais, whom he wishes to marry; his three sons (Richard, Geoffrey, and John), all of whom desire the throne; and the young but crafty King Philip of France (who is also Alais' brother). With the fate of Henry's empire at stake, everybody engages in their own brand of deception and treachery to stake their claim. Written by
More TRUE than a factual documentary could accomplish
It's been eight years since I first saw this movie, and it is still my personal live-action gold standard (Lilo & Stitch being my animated film gold-standard). It combines drama, tragedy, razor-sharp comedy, great performances, and the best dialogue that has ever been spoken on film, period.
I found this movie quite by accident--I was a sixteen-year-old with a Katharine Hepburn fixation. She mesmerized me; I wanted to BE her--smart, beautiful, sexy, and unwilling and unable to take anything off of anybody (except for Spencer Tracy, but that's another story). Honestly, I had no idea that there really had been such a person as Eleanor until I saw this movie. After watching my heroine portray her, I was determined to find out, though...so I have Katharine Hepburn to thank for my discovery of a new personal hero, and for my passion for medieval history.
It is true that this movie is not 100% factually accurate, not only because movie making dictates tinkering with history to create an interesting film, but also because, unfortunately, not too much is known about Eleanor herself. In the middle ages, women, even powerful, intriguing women like Eleanor, were not considered "important" enough to merit full biographical treatment. Most of Eleanor's history is recorded in the context of her sons and husbands. A good deal of this history was written by her detractors--people who disliked or disapproved of her for one reason or another. The simple explanation is that they felt that as a woman, she overstepped the bounds of what was considered "acceptable behavior" for a woman of the period.
That being said, this movie is 100% spiritually accurate. It perfectly captures the intrigue, the complexity of emotions and relationships, and tone of the age and the situation at hand. Though the sharp and witty dialogue is often considered a historical anachronism, this is not strictly true. Contrary to popular belief, people WERE educated in the middle ages, even women, if they were fortunate enough to be brought up in noble households, as Eleanor was. She was a brilliant woman, raised in a household where poetry and intelligent conversation were staples (her grandfather, after all, was one of the first troubadours). Henry was an intellectual powerhouse as well--he was a voracious reader who was often caught reading in church instead of paying attention to the sermons! It is unthinkable that these two minds would have produced stupid children, and the notion that the entire family should have only spoken in grunts and simple phrases is equally ludicrous.
Though not historically accurate, as other reviewers have noted, the strength of this movie lies in it's perfect portrayal of some of the most fascinating and complex personalities in recorded history. Henry, Eleanor, Richard, et al., make today's political and royal figures seem like low-rent bumbling hucksters.
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