Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 17: Lady Jane (1986)

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Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Lady Jane (1986) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 137 of the first edition hardback, Ebert recalls interviewing Helena Bonham Carter when she was 19 & promoting the film. He also recounts drinking at a particular English pub for such a long period of time that he remembers both the day she moved into an apartment upstairs as well as the day she moved out.

What Ebert had to say in his review: Roger never officially reviewed the film, but he does mention it as evidence in his declaration that Helena Bonham Carter is the “Queen of the Period Picture”.

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Lady Jane is a mid-80s British costume drama featuring members of the Royal Shakespeare Company and a babyfaced Helena Bonham Carter. In that simple one line description I believe I’ve told you everything you need to know about its value as an evening’s entertainment & an an artistic endeavor. Lady Jane is near-indistinguishable from a lot of its costume drama genre peers, save for a few before-they-were-stars casting choices, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t pleasant to look at. At 2.5 hours, its lack of stylistic or narrative ambition can wear your patience a little thin, but if you’re a fan of the familiar cinematic territory it inhabits there’s no shame in zoning out & enjoying the film for its beautiful costumes, historically inaccurate romance, horseback riding, and beheadings. Honestly, it’s perfect background filler for Sunday afternoon housecleaning, especially for fans of Helena Bonham Carter’s costume drama work who’d like to get a glimpse of her early stirrings.

Carter stars as Lady Jane Gray, known to history as “The Nine Days Queen” due to her very short reign as an English Monarch at the bequest of her dying boy-king cousin Edward VI. At the height of the Catholic-Protestant tensions in Great Britain, Lady Jane Grey was something of an instigator, pushing for Protestant values in order to “free the people from bigotry & superstition,” namely Catholicism. She was publicly executed for treason as a reward for her efforts, a shameful end as a political martyr for one of the most highly educated women of her time. Somewhere in that short time frame she was married off against her will to an English lord, a man she never loved & barely knew.

Lady Jane Grey’s story had been adapted for the silver screen twice before this Royal Shakespeare Company version, which might help explain how the details of that arranged marriage get a little fuzzy in this take. Carter’s Lady Jane is physically forced, whipped by her mother even, into marrying the rakish lord who offends her bookish sensibilities, but she does end up falling in love with him thanks to his good looks & dry wit of a young Carey Elwes (brought to the screen by a young Carey Elwes). I guess this doomed lovers element of the plot was meant as a sort of movie magic tactic that could up the emotional stakes of its narrative (which, again, ends in a public execution of a teenager), but it also plays as if The Royal Shakespeare Company spaced out & mixed in a little Romeo & Juliet with its historical narrative. I’m not complaining. Who doesn’t little teenage romance mixed in with their spiritually bleak, true life tragedy?

Ebert once called Helena Bonham Carter “The Queen of the Period Picture,” a career-long trend that’s continued all the way to projects as recent as 2013’s Great Expectations, Kenneth Braunaugh’s Cinderella, and last year’s Suffragette. Lady Jane was Carter’s very first top-billed role and she’s a literal baby in this film (a baby with amazing eyebrows), but she’s already a high-functioning actor here, holding her own among some of Britain’s finest stage actors of the time. She’s not the only interesting pre-fame performance either. A pre-Princess Bride Carey Elwes is perfectly charming as her non-historically accurate lover & a pre-Star Trek Patrick Stewart nearly steals the show as her boisterous, warmongering father, a character that feels as if he were lifted directly from an episode of Wishbone. I don’t think this film is especially memorable or worth seeking out unless one of those roles jumps out at you as something you’ve got to see before you die (are they’re a lot of diehard Helena Bonham Carter completists out there?), but like a lot of costume dramas it’s thoroughly pleasant & easy to consume. If it pops up on television I’d suggest you linger a while instead of immediately skipping over it. Otherwise it might not exactly be worth the effort of tracking it down.

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Roger’s Rating: N/A

Brandon’s Rating: (3/5, 60%)

three star

Next Lesson: Call Northside 777 (1948)

-Brandon Ledet

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