Twice, 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 (1983) didn't shorten the running time, too.
Director: Michael Winner
Writers: Leslie Arliss,
Faye Dunaway...Lady Barbara Skelton
Alan Bates...Jerry Jackson
Denholm Elliott...Sir Ralph Skelton
Prunella Scales...Lady Kingsclere
Oliver Tobias...Kit Locksby
Joan Hickson...Aunt Agatha
Helena McCarthy...Moll Skelton
Mollie Maureen...Doll Skelton
Derek Francis...Lord Kingsclere
Marina Sirtis...Jackson's Girl
Nicholas Gecks...Ned Cotterell
Hugh Millais...Uncle Martin
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 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 Old Days."
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, giggle.
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 (Oliver Tobias). Her ability to live this double life, undetected, rivals Clark Kent's or Peter Parker's, but the idea remains clever, if implausible.
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 Muche Intrigue.
After 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 Deanna Troi on Star Trek: The Next Generation(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 probably intended. 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 catfight-- with whips-- between Dunaway and Sirtis, while the Tyburn mob behaves like the dregs of humanity they are, kind of like the core WWE audience. 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 Excess, Accompanied by Reallie Badde Musicke.
I won't spoil the ending, which represents classic 18th-century novel 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-- overwrought throughout the entire film-- terribly annoying.
Certainly, the film boasts 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 Barbara.
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.
A variation of this review, by this author, originally appeared at Bad Movie Night, and has been reprinted at the Alan Bates Film Review Archive.