During the 1980s, Cannon Films specialized in what we might can high-end exploitation cinema – bigger budget versions of the sort of thing that might have previously been churned out by assorted US independents, sometimes with oddly starry casts. For this, they were unfairly lambasted by the film establishment. One of the directors that they signed up early in the decade was Michael Winner, once an admired director, but by 1983 loathed almost as much by the film establishment as Cannon – his 1982 sequel to Death Wish had plumbed new depths of bad taste for a mainstream movie, and Winner’s brash public persona and political views were at odds with a British film industry that adored dour left wing directors like Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. No matter that Winner was the only filmmaker in the UK to publicly fight against the increasing tide of censorship and the pernicious influence of Mary Whitehouse at the time – in fact, this probably damned him even more in the eyes of critics like Barry Norman.
So The Wicked Lady, made in 1983, was always going to have a hard time with the critics because of the people behind it. To make things worse, it was a remake of a Gainsborough picture, and Gainsborough were the very essence of respectable British cinema in the 1940s, despite making bodice-ripping yarns like this and The Man in Grey. Add to this Winner’s very public battle with the BBFC over the film’s climatic whipping scene (with the help of celebrity backers, he won – but the BBFC got their own back by hacking into the film when it was released on video some years later), which only seemed to emphasise the lurid nature of the film – topless women being whipped, indeed – and it is no surprise that The Wicked Lady is still sneered at by those critics who remember it, even if they haven’t actually seen it.
In truth, the film is indeed a slice of high camp nonsense – but it knows very much what it is. This is no accidentally trashy film – Winner deliberately makes it as kitsch as possible, gleefully piling on the gratuitous nudity (it’s probably not by chance that his director credit appears over a pair of bouncing naked breasts) and violence, and seemingly encouraging his cast to ham it up whenever they can. Sensibly, Winner aims to make the film fun– and in 1980s British cinema, there was no greater crime.
Barbara (Faye Dunaway) turns up to her sister Caroline’s (Glynis Barber) wedding to Sir Ralph Skelton (Denholm Elliott) and immediately seduces the groom, stealing him away and marrying him herself, and thus revealing right away that she is a wrong ‘un. We also discover very quickly that the film will be demanding a certain suspension of disbelief, as Dunaway – in her mid-Forties when the film was made – is clearly too old for the part she is playing and has a somewhat on-off English accent. She also gives a solidly rotten performance – the worst in the film – though I will confess to not being a fan (Dunaway’s acting in other films seems to be praised because you can see her do it, but for me, a good actor sinks into their role, rather than drawing attention to their performance).
Barbara is soon bored by her life on a country estate, exchanging barbed comments with sister-in-law Henrietta (Prunella Scales, having great fun with her role). When she loses a family heirloom to Henrietta, Barbara decides to steal it back by imitating highwayman Jerry Jackson and holding up Henrietta’s stagecoach. The thrill of this soon sees her carrying out further robberies, but soon enough, she comes into contact with the REAL Jackson (Alan Bates), and the pair of them team up as both lovers and highwaymen. Meanwhile, the supporting characters all pout and moon over each other in some sort of costume soap opera, interspersed with regular nudity (Winner showing that he has an eye for casting a nice pair of breasts).
It’s hard to criticize a film that is so defiantly shameless. The lack of giving a damn is perhaps summed up in a sex scene involving Glynis Barber’s character, where a body double is used for the nude scenes – nothing unusual in that, but Winner is so devil-may-care that he even allows the body double to appear, face-on, to the camera, and defies you to notice. Perhaps he rightly assumed that most viewers wouldn’t be looking at her face. And Star Trek fans will probably never look at Marina Sirtis the same way again, after her appearance her – she gets two scenes, one of which involves her appearing fully nude and asking “who the fuck was that?” and the other the controversial whipping scene, where she loses her top and is full of lacerations. Passed uncut – as it always should have been – the scene is nowhere near as excessive as it has been made out to be, but it nevertheless a gloriously, gratuitously audacious moment of tastelessness.
Yet the film is handsomely mounted, with the costumes, the sets and Jack Cardiff’s photography giving it a sense of class that it might not deserve – it’s certainly the equal of any other costume drama visually, and Tony Banks’ score (the Genesis man joining Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones in the list of rock stars who Winner somehow conned into scoring his films) is suitably sumptuous. A classy cast that also includes John Gielgud adds to the film’s impressiveness. And Winner directs with a sense of flair that we really should be admiring, not condemning. Like Ken Russell and Nic Roeg, he was one of the few British directors of the era to understand that cinema is a visual entertainment medium, and while not quite in the same league as those directors, he is probably worthy of reassessment.
The Wicked Lady isn’t a great film – it’s a touch too long, Dunaway lets it down and some of the sub-plots don’t really work. But it’s a lot of fun – trashy, tasteless and a genuine romp. You’d have to be especially po-faced to find it objectionable.