Faye Dunaway stars as Lady Barbara Skelton, a beautiful
English 17th Century socialite who finds her life extremely dull
in spite of marrying a rich man (Denholm Elliot). In order to
escape her banal existence, Barbara begins an affair with a miscreant
criminal, Jackson (Alan Bates), and together they enter into
a life of crime (specifically, highway robbery). As Barbara masquerades
as a robber by day, she must uphold her duties in the social
hierarchy by night.
A remake of the 1945 classic, WICKED LADY is a
bold foray into deviance. Dunaway looks delectable in her 17th
Century wardrobe. Director Michael has even gone so far to include
an erotic whipping scene between Dunaway and Marina Sirtis of
STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION.
by Jeff DeLuzio
now, Magdelen King-Hall's novel, "The Life and Death of
the Wicked Lady Skelton" has been adapted to the big screen.
Both shortened the title to, "The Wicked Lady." Pity
the second version didn't shorten the running time, too.
The opening is about what you'd
expect. We have that Merchant Ivory historical adaptation look,
with, predictably, people in period costumes riding horses. It
quickly becomes far more exciting than a Merchant Ivory production--
though that certainly doesn't require much effort. Our riders
encounter a couple rolling in the hay, and a man gets dragged
to a hanging because he stole apples from nobility. At least
this film doesn't serve up that phony nostalgia for the "Good
What "The Wicked Lady"
does serve can be divided into three courses, varying in the
degree and nature of their unpalatability.
I. Part the First:
On Curing that Most Vexatious & Discomforting Conditione
of the Insomnia.
The plot centres on Lord Ralph Skelton (Denholm
Elliot), and his bride-to-be, innocent Caroline (Glynis Berber).
The title character, played by Faye Dunaway, arrives to be the
Maid of Honour, but she quickly uses the era's Code of Honour,
and her Machiavellian ways (accompanied by cheesy, evil smiles)
to steal the otherwise respectable Lord Ralph away, and therefore
gain access to his considerable fortune. Caroline the Ingenue
must leave, Ralph the Twit must accept a loveless marriage, and
the goofy twin Ladies-in-Waiting, for want of any character,
Bored with her new station at
Skelton Hall, and intrigued by the reputation of a local highwayman,
"Captain Jackson," Barbara slips out at night, becomes
a robber herself, and begins an affair with the infamous gentleman
brigand (Alan Bates). Her ability to live this double life, undetected,
rivals Clark Kent's or Peter Parker's, but the idea remains clever,
A better question is, how can
all this be soooo boring?
The question lingers. If nothing
else, this material should feed cheap, sensationalistic interest.
It doesn't. The film lurches forward with the elephantine pacing
so typical of costumed dramas, while lacking any of the depth
that sometimes makes them worth the crawl. The film also lacks
the requisite fine acting; most of the cast drifts woodenly through
their parts. Hard-done-by Caroline manages to be the most treelike
of the lot. Also lumbering through we have Sir John Gielgud,
the trusting (and therefore, doomed) majordomo of the Skelton
estate. Of course, he's only in this picture to lend it respectability,
and his heart is somewhere, far, far, away. He plays "Hogarth"
like he's on mescaline. One suspects he demanded the character's
early death as a condition of appearing in this film.
II. Part the Second:
On the Picking Up of the Pace, Alas, Too Briefly, With Verrie
Barbara murders Hogarth and resumes her wild life, the film manages
to develop some heart-- albeit a sleazy heart. Marina Sirtis,
playing the highwayman's hellcattish doxy, shows more spirit
than she did in seven years as Counsellor Troi on "Star
Trek: TNG"(again, not a difficult task). Lady Barbara, angry
that her illicit lover has another woman, arranges for him to
be arrested. The bust at the Leaping Stag pub is pretty good,
establishing the ribald tone and cliffhanger plotting that dominates
the second part of the film, and might have made "The Wicked
Lady" the enjoyable sleazefest that the director was probably
intending. Many twists and turns ensue, we have an excellent
depiction of a hanging at the Tyburn, and Caroline, now engaged
to a man she does not love, re-enters the picture.
This segment also features a cat-fight
- with whips - between Dunaway and Sirtis, while the Tyburn mob
behaves like the dregs of humanity they are, kind of like Jerry
Springer's audiences. The problem, of course, is some people
will not find this any more entertaining than they do Springer,
TV wrestling, or table-dancing-- and those looking for this seedy
sort of diversion will have fallen asleep by this point.
III. Part the Third:
Being the Death of "The Wicked Lady" in Melodramatical
Accompanied by Reallie Badde Musicke.
I won't spoil the ending, which represents classic
melodramatic plotting, with many far-fetched yet predictable
twists and turns. Suffice it to say, the acting and dialogue
becomes increasingly melodramatic and inane, the moral sentiments
hopelessly forced and artificial, and the music - overdone throughout
the entire film - terribly annoying.
Certainly, the film has a few
highlights. Lady Barbara, in her disguise, robs an annoying,
hypocritical drip named Henrietta, who then exaggerates the story
for sympathy and prurient interest while retelling it to Lady
The movie also does not skimp
on the seedy, brutal aspects of life in days of yore. The streets
are filthy. Poor people are poorly treated. And then there's
that mob at the Tyburn. Refreshing, if not pleasant, when set
against most Hollywood treatments of the past.
The film also remains true to
the 18th century moralistic novel: the plot throws all manner
of sleaze at us, which we are supposed to lustily enjoy, and
then has the bad characters come to a rotten ending, so we can
applaud the story's virtue. Had it been better done, it might
have accomplished at least the goals of having us "lustily
enjoy." Or, had it been more intelligently adapted, it might
have served as a diverting historical adaptation. As it stands,
we have, primarily, the waste of an interesting idea. |||