Reviewer: Freda Cooper
Director: Michael Winner
Stars: Faye Dunaway, Alan Bates, Denholm Elliott, John Gielgud
Released 4th July 2016
“The Wicked Lady” was a popular British bodice ripper from 1945 which starred Margaret Lockwood and James Mason. But this isn’t it. This is the re-make from 1983, directed by Michael Winner for the notorious Cannon Films and it makes its first appearance on DVD this week. A period piece in more senses than one.
The Cannon Films label gives you an idea of what to expect – low-budget schlock – but instead of all-guns-blazing action and naff special effects, we’re thrust into what looks like the 18th century, all big hats, flamboyant wigs and outlandish frocks. Thoroughly decent country landowner Sir Ralph Skelton (Denholm Elliott) is about to marry Caroline (Glynis Barber), but she makes the mistake of inviting her best friend Barbara (Faye Dunaway) to meet her future husband. It wasn’t her best move. Barbara promptly seduces and marries Ralph, but finds life in the country desperately dull and, after losing some precious jewellery in a card game, decides to steal it back by disguising herself as a highwayman. Real highwayman Jerry Jackson (Alan Bates) gets the blame, tracks her down and they join forces. But how long can Barbara keep this double life going?
That’s an awful lot of familiar names, and they make up what should be a good cast, especially when teamed with the likes of John Gielgud, as the deeply religious family butler, Prunella Scales, Joan Hickson, Oliver Tobias and even John Savident, well before his days as Corrie’s Fred Elliott. Behind the camera there’s legendary Oscar winner Jack Cardiff (“Black Narcissus”). But in the hands of Michael Winner, none of them stand a chance and you’re left wondering how on earth he persuaded them to get involved in the first place.
There’s an even bigger problem, which goes back to it being a period piece and which today’s audience, women especially, will find unpalatable. At the centre of the story is a strong woman: nothing wrong with that, but here strong equates with bad, scheming and evil. Worse still, the film has a grubby, salacious tone, with lots of perky breasts on show for no reason whatsoever. Jackson’s anonymous girlfriend (Marina Sirtis) is forever showing off hers and she’s involved in the scene that was partly responsible for the film’s 18 certificate, which it’s kept for the DVD release. It’s a fight between her and Dunaway involving a whip, an extraordinary device that manages to remove the top half of Sirtis’s dress at a single stroke. Curiously, Dunaway never shows off more than her shoulders: it must’ve been in her contract. It’s all sleazy, exploitative and feels like What The Butler Saw on DVD.
If it wasn’t for the out-dated sexism, you’d probably chuckle your way through most of the film because it’s definitely so bad that it’s funny. And there are moments that do genuinely make you laugh, intentional or not. When Barbara discovers that Jackson has another woman in his bed, she leaves in high dudgeon and the unnamed girlfriend indignantly asks, “Who the f**ck was that?” Obviously an 18th century epithet. But the cast, Dunaway and Gielgud in particular, ham it up so much you’d think they’d just done a shift on Tesco’s deli. Not, of course, that we’re meant to take it seriously, because it’s just meant to be a bawdy romp.
And we’d be quite happy to enjoy it as such, if it wasn’t for that inherent seediness. As it is, it leaves a very unpleasant taste in the mouth. Wicked it most certainly is not.