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July 2016

The Wicked Lady

cast: Faye Dunaway, Alan Bates, John Gielgud, Denholm Elliott, and Glynis Barber

director: Michael Winner

95 minutes (18) 1983
widescreen ratio 16:9
Second Sight DVD Region 2

RATING: 7/10
review by Christopher Geary

The Wicked Lady

This is a remake of Leslie Arliss' The Wicked Lady (1945), a b&w adventure movie which starred Margaret Lockwood and James Mason. Director Michael Winner opts for more boisterous fare here, with a lively costumed caper that, today, resonates - albeit rather weakly - with the current trend for superhero movies about masked antiheroes and pseudo-villains. With all of that in mind, we should not expect Winner's mildly anarchic period drama to stand as any manner of distaff contrast to Stanley Kubrick's epic Barry Lyndon (1975).

This version of The Wicked Lady is a lusty romp, with plenty of bawdy goings-on as topless wenches abound. The wealthy and privileged seem generally oblivious, or indifferent, to the suffering and blatant atrocities of inequality and injustice clearly being committed against common people. Not that Winner is particularly concerned with socio-political themes or even much Pythonesque satire here. Instead, this is an essentially British picture with typical modestly budgeted values, which sees its local yokels engaging in bear-baiting and perpetual maypole dances. And, although there is a wedding in church, the town's late night celebrations party on through what seems almost like pagan revels.

"Your jesting is in bad taste." Barbara (Faye Dunaway) effortlessly steals her friend Caroline's rich fiancé Ralph (Denholm Elliott), but his lordship is too easy a conquest for the restless new Lady Skelton, and adventuress Barb courts a much less protected relationship with a womanising local scoundrel, 'Captain' Jerry Jackson (Alan Bates), and she joins him in the highwayman crimes that prove to be a dangerous pursuit for everyone.

With her bested friend Caroline (Glynis Barber, of Blake's 7, Dempsey & Makepeace) effectively sidelined, Barb's only serious courtly rival - in wisdom if not restraint - is Lady Kingsclere (Prunella Scales, coasting on her character's pithy one-liners), while the great John Gielgud struggles to maintain his dignity as pious butler Hogarth, who quotes scripture - in response to any problem or crisis, and is not long for this world partly because of his elitism.

"The road is mine," asserts roguish Jackson, to anyone that will listen. But, after Lady Skelton discovers him in bed with a tavern trollop (Marina Sirtis, later a mainstay on Star Trek: The Next Generation, providing this movie with frivolity in its full-frontal nude scenes), the scorned Barb betrays Jackson to authorities. While the landowners to the manor born indulge themselves in questionable piety, trombone practice, and ice-skating, their oppression of the lower orders perhaps inevitably produces an 'I'm Spartacus' moment when Jackson is finally hunted down. Will Lady Skelton dare risk her own neck by turning up to watch the highwayman dangle?

The climactic catfight becomes a thoroughly gratuitous whipping scene, and one that previously troubled censors (this DVD is uncut), but also ensured The Wicked Lady its cult status as a bloody melodrama. Created with all the corny styling of a Carry-On/ Hammer movie, Winner's campy picture is often hugely entertaining for all the wrong reasons, and it's just as archly bemusing as it is commendably outrageous.

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