By Cleaver Patterson.
One has to question why some filmmakers see fit to remake films which were considered classics the first time round – is there so little original material and imagination out there that they have to revert to old material for inspiration? Take for instance 1945’s exquisite British period drama The Wicked Lady, starring Margaret Lockwood as Barbara Worth, a 17th century highway woman who takes the infamous Captain Jerry Jack (James Mason) on at his own game with tragic consequences. Made by the Gainsborough Pictures studio at the end of World War II, it is considered by many as one of the archetypal films of the period and an example of the studio at their pinnacle. Why then would director Michael Winner decide forty years later to resurrect the story, giving it his take on the big screen? Why indeed?
Sir Ralph Skelton (Denholm Elliot) is all set to marry the beautiful, innocent, Caroline (Glynis Barber), until her sister Barbara (Faye Dunaway) arrives to be her bridesmaid at the wedding. One look at Barbara and Ralph is besotted and, discarding Caroline, marries the woman who would have been his sister-in-law instead. However life in rural England soon looses its charm for the shallow Barbara, who turns her charms to highway robbery with devastating repercussions for the whole family. Truth be told, taken at face value as a harmless romp, Winner’s film has much in its favour. The period in which the action is set is widely known as one of the bawdiest of English history, where free love and excess in everything was the order of the day. In its depiction of this the film by perhaps British cinema’s most famous ‘enfant terrible’ does not disappoint: copious full-frontal glimpses of naked women, frequent, unheralded shots of ‘male on female’ action and the controversial whip fight between Dunaway’s Lady Skelton and a local wench (played by Marina Sirtis, who later made her name in Star Trek: The Next Generation), leave little to the imagination.
Dunaway, Elliot and Barber—along with Alan Bates as Jerry Jackson, Barbara’s comrade-in-arms on the road and later in bed—tear through the action, atmospherically shot against a backdrop of locations including North Mymms House in Hertfordshire and Kent’s Hever Castle which capture perfectly the period essence of 17th century England. In their pursuits they are supported by a cast of thespian talent which could only come from Britain: John Gielgud, Prunella Scales, Joan Hickson and Oliver Tobias. The list goes on, proving if nothing else Winner’s undeniable ability to attract top drawer talent to any film he made. These aspects, however, though undoubtedly forming the basis for the film’s main appeal, are also it’s downfall.
Here was a story which gave the opportunity to bring something more to the screen than mere candy for the eye. Though the film is beautifully ‘dressed’, there is ultimately little of substance beneath its outward finery, with any sign of the usual elements of depth—ie. dialogue, story and subtlety—proving mere superficial sidelines to the visual impact of the film on screen. The potential of in-family feuds and twisted love affairs, interspersed with daring-do on the byways of rural England, could have added substance to a film which, though rumbustious fun, lacks any real spark beneath its bawdy exterior. This in the end though means little for a film that clearly sets out, first and foremost, to entertain, an aim which it achieves with flying colours.
Cleaver Patterson is a film journalist and critic based in London. News Editor for the Flickfeast website, he contributes to a number of other websites and publications including Scream, Film International and Video Watchdog. His own film blog can be found at: www.screenandgone.com.
The Wicked Lady was released in the UK for the first time on uncensored DVD by Second Sight.