Directed by Michael Winner
Starring Faye Dunaway, Alan Bates, John Gielgud, Denholm Elliott
Released on 14th July 2016
One quiet evening some time ago, I was flicking channels and clocked a re-make of the 1945 film, The Wicked Lady. I started to watch and, despite my better judgement, got hooked and stayed with it until the end. It turned out I wasn’t the only one: at work the following morning, it was the number one topic of conversation. We’d all been caught up in it and that was why we were yawning our heads off.
Now, after a long absence, it’s out on DVD, this time in an uncensored version. Would I get hooked again? This time round I’d realised that the director was Michael Winner and that it came from Cannon Films, the 80s specialists in cheap (in both senses), tacky but surprisingly popular movies. And it wasn’t the film I remembered.
It’s probably the 18th century – it doesn’t matter much – and Caroline (Glynis Barber) is about to marry country landowner Sir Ralph Skelton (Denholm Elliott). She invites her best friend Barbara (Faye Dunaway) to visit and meet her future husband, but it’s not a good move. Barbara promptly seduces and marries him, but finds life in the country desperately dull and, after losing a valuable brooch in a game of cards, decides to steal it back, disguised as a highwayman. Her crimes are blamed on real highwayman Jerry Jackson (Alan Bates) who tracks her down and they join forces. But how long can Barbara keep this double life going?
With a cast like this you’d think it couldn’t fail. John Gielgud’s there, as the devoted and deeply religious family butler, alongside other familiar British faces – Prunella Scales, Joan Hickson, Oliver Tobias and John Savident, well before his days in Corrie as Fred Elliott. And the legendary Jack Cardiff (Black Narcissus etc) is behind the camera. How on earth Winner managed to persuade so much talent to be in a typically Cannon piece of schlock is beyond me. Your guess is as good as mine.
There’s none of their usual obviously low-budget special effects, but it replaces them with titillation. An intentional pun, I’m afraid, because there’s a lot of perky breasts on show and for no good reason. Jackson’s unnamed girlfriend (Marina Sirtis) is forever showing hers and she’s also involved in the scene partially responsible for the film’s 18 certificate, which it retains on DVD. It’s a fight between her and Dunaway, one involving a whip that miraculously manages to remove the top half of Sirtis’s dress at a single stroke. It’s all unnecessary and exploitative, making the film feel like a sleazy 1980s What The Butler Saw.
If it wasn’t for those scenes, you’d probably laugh your way through it because it’s a prime example of a film being so bad it’s funny. And there are still moments that make you laugh. After Barbara leaves having discovered Jackson has another woman in his life, the girlfriend turns to him, indignantly asking “Who the f**k was that?” A traditional 18th century epithet. The acting is so hammy, especially from Dunaway and Gielgud, that it must have come from a supermarket deli. Not that we’re meant to take it especially seriously, as it’s clearly intended to be nothing more than an entertaining romp. And it would be, if it wasn’t for its grubbier side.
What I saw first time round must have been a censored version – entertaining tosh, yes, but with an almost constant knowing wink at the camera. Now, in its seedy entirety, it’s a very different film, one that makes you laugh for the wrong reasons. There’s no good reason to watch it now. Nor to re-release it.
The Wicked Lady is released on DVD on Monday, 4 July and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 7 July.