The Wicked Lady (1983)
Directed by: Michael Winner
Written by: Aimée Stuart, Gordon Glennon, Leslie Arliss, Magdalen King-Hall, Michael Winner
Starring: Alan Bates, Denholm Elliott, Faye Dunaway, John Gielgud
AVAILABLE ON DVD: 4th JULY, from SECOND SIGHT
RUNNING TIME: 96 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Caroline is about to be married to Sir Ralph Skelton, an older landowner known for his compassionate attitude toward his tenants. Hoping to share the excitement of the upcoming event with her sister Barbara, Caroline welcomes the regal woman into her home, but Barbara steals Sir Ralph’s affections, earning a title and a taste of power after their wedding. However, she soon becomes bored with her new life and, when she loses her mother’s brooch to another, she dresses up as a highwayman and snatches it back, an event which leads into a double life as a highway robber, something which soon attracts the attention of fellow rogue Jerry Jackson….
Though I’ve seen the 1945 version of The Wicked Lady, a surprisingly ‘immoral’ and racy picture for British cinema of the time, several times, it’s taken me until now to view Michael Winner’s poorly regarded remake, and sadly [sorry Second Sight] it’s almost, though not quite as poor as its reputation. That’s not to say it’s not unenjoyable at times – bad movies can be more fun that good ones – but it’s a very pointless one, being little more than a scene by scene – sometimes with even the same dialogue – remake of the immeasurably superior earlier version with lots of tits thrown in here and there, as if that was enough to totally justify its existence. The attempt seems to have been to turn it into a bit of a send-up, but Winner lacks almost entirely the light touch necessary to make this work, and the result is pretty much at the low level typical of this filmmaker [which he did occasionally rise above but certainly not here]; crude, disjointed and lacking in any real style. Some enjoyment can certainly be had though, from Faye Dunaway’s totally bizarre [unless you’ve seen Mommie Dearest] performance to the many ineptly done shots and scenes.
This and the earlier movie were based on Magdalen King-Hall’s novel Life And Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton, which was inspired by the true story of highway-woman Lady Kathleen Ferrers, who lived at the Markyate Cell manor in the village of Markyate near Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire. Winner was supposedly a big fan of the 1945 film but had wanted to remake it for ages because he felt it could be improved upon by being shot on location rather than in the studio. Produced by Cannon Films who were Winner’s usual employers at the time, The Wicked Lady was shot in and around North Mymms House in Hertfordshire, and Hever Castle in Hever, Kent. Dunaway, who turned down a role in a British TV production of King Lear to be in this movie, had fifty hand-made silk dresses imported from France and Italy to wear as costumes in it. Gregory Peck, who would have been far too old anyway, turned down the role eventually played by Alan Bates. The film ran into censor trouble when the BBFC ordered 13 seconds of Dunaway whipping Marina Sirtis [I guess they thought that breasts being whipped incited rapists just like they thought blood on breasts did so] tob be removed. Winner refused to make the cuts and got fellow director colleagues as Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and John Schlesinger as well as novelist Kingsley Amis to defend retention of the scene. The scene stayed in its full edit, but the film’s release was delayed, and the cuts were still made for the video release.
The film’s first scene has a couple ‘at it’ in a barn being watched through a crack by some others. Somebody says to someone else: ”He’s in there with another woman”, and the wife of the bloke in the barn bursts in on the two lovers with a broom and attacks them. The woman comes running out and the shots of her breasts seem to get closer and closer to the camera. How funny! Actually I’ll happily admit that I wholeheartedly adore mammary glands as much as the next guy, and certainly didn’t object to them being in this one, but their appearances here are totally gratuitous, while either Winner or the other scriptwriters have so little imagination that they go on to have several variations of this opening scene occur later on in the film. I guess this is what constitutes bawdy humour to them, but they don’t really know how to do this kind of thing well [just watch Tom Jones for a comparison]. They also rush through the first act ridiculously quickly, as if chunks of footage are missing – one minute Barbara and Ralph are riding in the countryside, Barbara falls off her horse and the two are rolling in the mud, then in the next scene they’re about to get married!
The film does settle somewhat soon after while maintaining a fast pace – whilst quite limited in terms of action, it does move swiftly and never quite bores. Unfortunately it’s hard to believe or care about the characters, such as the fact that grandfatherly Denholm Elliot is the object of both love and/or lust from pretty young Glynis Barber and Dunaway, though due to obvious surgery the latter looks like her head is constantly stuck out of an aeroplane window the way her face is pulled back [a far cry from the stunner of films like Bonnie And Clyde and The Thomas Crown Affair]. Or the way that Caroline doesn’t seem that bothered by the fact that her sister is now swanning around the house married to the fiancée she stole from her. Barbara’s robbing leads her into the arms of notorious criminal Jerry Jackson, though it’s occasional guest at her house Kit Locksby she really loves, only he ends up with….well, I won’t say, though it’s in the film’s only actual sex scene, but in the 1945 film I was emotionally involved in these shenanigans, but wasn’t very much in this one. Nor is there much suspense when Barbara may be found out, though she has a great murder scene where she smothers someone to death with a pillow while some others are only feet away, and the story may have a surprise or two if you’re not familiar with it.
The climactic girl fight isn’t too badly done despite the usage of ‘fly fishing’ motion instead of an authentic whip motion, but its brutality jars with the supposed light approach elsewhere, and indeed there are a few genuine laughs, many of them for me coming from two elderly housemaids who constantly giggle and make silly remarks just like little girls, though the funniest bit in the film is when a guard goes to investigate the overturned coach on a bridge, gets chinned by the lurking Jerry, and the stunt guy goes to extraordinary lengths to make sure he falls into the water…or – come to think of it – it could it be a certain character’s death scene where the person in question is shot and bleeding, is next seen in bed having put on bed garments, and then decides to fall out of bed and crawl across the floor. Being a Winner film, the editing from scene to scene is often quite poor and some scenes just appear to be half finished. At least the movie still generally looks good, courtesy of veteran cinematographer Jack Cardiff, the countryside locations and the bright costumes certainly being exploited to their full, and something that did really impress me was the detail in many of the outdoor set pieces, the high point being an execution where people are even selling toys of a man hanging from a gallows!
Dunaway is all over the place, often pulling comedy faces and bugging her eyes out, though you can’t say she’s not entertaining. Sadly the script never attempts to develop her character like it did for Margaret Lockwood in 1945, nor is she a little bit sympathetic as the character was previously. As well as Elliott, the fine cast also includes Alan Bates, who is unusually weak, and John Gielgud [though he’d just been in Caligula so he’d have been up for anything], who caan’t resist the desire to be a bit hammy. Genesis keyboardist Tony Banks provides a pretty good, if very poorly recorded, score with some nice, lively themes. There are definitely some things of merit in The Wicked Lady, and if you haven’t seen the other version than you may like it more than I did, but for the most part it’s a film which mostly misses the mark, the material being largely mishandled, and it almost entirely lacks the spark that it ought to have.
Second Sight’s DVD presentation of The Wicked Lady, which a bit of research indicates is taken from the same master as Kino Lorber’s Region 1’A’ Blu-ray disc, doesn’t look too good in the first few minutes with lots of specks and scratches, but becomes significantly better after that. The print shows signs of minor damage here and there but is generally quite pleasing and has just the right amount of grain to give it a nice film-like appearance.