The Wicked Lady, one of Michael Winner’s latter-day pictures (but before the career nadir that was Parting Shots) is a controversial movie about a noble woman masquerading as a highwayman. And it’s just not very good. Not very good at all.
When it originally came out much was made of its 18 certificate content, especially as it was a remake of a more genteel Gainsborough picture originally made in the 1940s. In many ways the muddy country setting, with the hanging corpses of recently executed prisoners swinging from posts in the town square should have an air of stark realism about it. It’s packed with a huge number of brilliant actors and on paper you would imagine it could be a great watch. But it’s really not. In fact it’s a pretty crass mess which manages to make the cheapest (both financially and artistically) choices at every turn. The corpses and the mud, which might suggest historical authenticity, don’t seem to stop all the peasants looking incredibly cheerful all the time. The audience might well wonder whether anyone had bothered giving the on screen extras any acting direction at all.
The story concerns Lady Barbara Skelton (Faye Dunaway) whose marriage to Sir Ralph Skelton (Denholm Elliott) only took place because she stole him away from his intended fiancee, her sister Caroline (Glynis Barber). Not that wicked an act in the grand scheme of things, but not very nice. It’s the 17th century and bored by her new position she takes to highway robbery, falling in with other criminals on the road. In between seducing other men and stealing jewels, she schemes to make sure her identity isn’t revealed and that she might fall foul of the hangman’s rope. Indeed the story is an adaptation, based on real events which were fictionalised in a 1940s novel by Magdalen King-Hall.
The problem is, Lady Skelton is a really dislikable character. The film it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. Is it a morality tale or a story of redemption or a story of punishment? Are we supposed to sympathise and admire the titular wicked lady or not? Because if we are it doesn’t work. We might expect as an audience to find some kind of admiration for her actions, or sympathy for the way she behaves. But no, the character is horribly unsympathetic, and no reasoning is ever provided for her behaviour. The script provides no sense of character reasoning.
As a result some very fine actors, including Elliott, Alan Bates, Prunella Scales, John Gielgud, and Joan Hickson, have very little to do but intone the flat screenplay (also co-written by Winner) as best they can. Even in a melodrama there should be some reasoning behind the actions.
Heralding from the “churn ’em out” school of film production that was Cannon Films (see the excellent documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films if you need a primer) the movie is a period drama without a great deal to recommend it.
Far from being a saucy romp, it’s packed full of utterly gratuitous and narratively unnecessary nudity. These pointless moments of salacious nudity, typical of the stuff Cannon Films released, just seem for the most part laughably silly now. One sequence however, with one female character viciously whipping another to the point she becomes topless as the welts form, just reeks of misogyny. Anecdotes from behind-the-scenes do nothing to disavow anyone watching of that feeling. The women in the film are either ornamental, silly or deceitful and combined with the rest of the storytelling makes for an uncomfortably unreconstructed watch. Realising that this cheap and tacky ethos is running through the production makes the audience understand that the frequent hanging corpses haven’t been put in for any form of historical authenticity, but rather for a kind of crass thrill.
Watching The Wicked Lady feels like viewing a film by someone who knows the technical aspects of the job, but just doesn’t have the skill to make it come alive. Winner’s direction has a perfunctory artlessness and the film, which at its core has an interesting concept, ultimately suffers because of it.
The Wicked Lady is out now on DVD.