Sony // 1985 // 139 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Christopher Kulik (Retired) // June 24th, 2009
Into a violent world of men...one woman brought mercy.
I watched Florence Nightingale with not only an open mind but also completely cold knowledge of its subject. Made for TV in 1985, this is the story of the "Lady of the Lamp," the mother of modern nursing who broke down all gender barriers to care for the sick. Despite its low profile, this is a rewarding, respectable portrait of a remarkable woman. Sony has finally granted this better-than-average TV movie a DVD release, and it's more than welcome.
Beautiful, angelic Florence (Jaclyn Smith, Charlie's Angels) is emerging into womanhood in Victorian society. It's the 1840s, and her parents only want her to get married and live a relatively normal life. A potential suitor does arrive in the genteel Richard Milnes (Timothy Dalton, Licence to Kill). But Florence's heart is drawn more to the plight of the poor and the unsanitary hospital conditions. She is saddened that the impovershed are not given proper treatment, dying without comfort or even acknowledgment. Even though she loves Richard, she decides to educate herself, resulting in becoming head nurse at an all-woman's hospital.
When the Crimean War breaks out, however, Florence is taken aback at the horrifying reports coming from the British Army detailing the treatment of soldiers in Turkey. She immediately volunteers to help, along with nearly 40 nurses. Once they arrive, they are greeted with disrespect by the sexist Army officers, refusing to grant them access to the medical wards. Through fierce determination, Florence and her staff clean up the rat-infested facility (where cholera is spreading like wildfire) as well as giving the proper attention and medical needs to all the wounded soldiers. She eventually becomes a celebrity of sorts, as her "thinking of everyone but herself" attitude garners her tremendous respect.
What makes Florence Nightingale work as not only a biopic but also a drama is its commitment in presenting its subject with grace and intelligence. It would be easy for anyone to paint Florence as nothing more than saint (which is what many viewed her as at the time), but the teleplay actually allows her to acknowledge her own faults and flaws. This is a rare women who bravely rebelled against the social climate, one in which looked down upon women as well as the poverty-stricken. She became a pioneer not by accident, but by pluck and extremely hard work. We see how Florence became a national icon and nothing else, as showcasing her later years would have been extraneous and unnecessary.
Director Daryl Duke (The Thorn Birds) and writers Ivan Moffat and Rose Leiman Goldemberg (The Burning Bed) wisely stray from Big Moments With Overbearing Music. In the end, they simply go for subtlety. There is an old-fashioned sense of storytelling here, as everything feels natural and relaxed. For the most part, they are true to the history books, and yet they don't allow the film to degenerate into Masterpiece Theater tedium. Florence Nightingale is succinctly sliced into three acts, thus enabling lucid storytelling from first frame to last. Most television miniseries insist on taking multiple hours -- utilizing multiple climaxes in the process -- to execute its narrative. Florence, however, moves swiftly at a brisk two hours and nineteen minutes. By the end, we are fully satisfied.
Now forgive me for stating the obvious, but Jaclyn Smith is a strikingly gorgeous woman. Even now, at age 64, she holds her own against college girls at a beauty pageant. However, is she a good actress? Firstly, let's dismiss Charlie's Angels, as it was engineered specifically to showcase its leading ladies more for their bods than brains. I've not seen Smith anything else, so all I'm going to say is she is believable enough as Miss Nightingale. Certainly she struggles with her British accent at times, yet she also channels Florence's good nature and bravery with admiration. Nothing against Smith, I just don't understand why the producers felt the need to go with an American name. Actually I do, but still can't help but ask why they couldn't have cast a Brit. Was Helen Mirren too busy or something?
Luckily, we have a strong supporting cast here. Dalton is at his dashing best, but he's unfortunately left on the sidelines a bit too early. Claire Bloom (Limelight) and Jeremy Brett (My Fair Lady) are exquisite as Florence's parents. And the great Brian Cox (Braveheart) is memorable as Dr. McGrigor, the lead Army corpsman who has his hands tied. Look sharp and you'll also spot Oscar-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) and Wolf Kahler (the evil Dietrich in Raiders of the Lost Ark) in bit parts.
Amazingly, Florence Nightingale looks marvelous for a nearly 25-year-old television production. There is an expected softness to the image, but the colors and black levels are well-preserved in the 1.33:1 full frame print. Audio is a mystery, but I'm guessing its 2.0 mono, which is perfectly adequate. Unfortunately, extras are null and void.
There have been many versions of Florence Nightingale produced, both for the big and small screen. We had several silent versions and we even a BBC version made last year. While I'm unable to make comparisons, I will say this version is extremely well done, thus warranting a recommendation from me.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* English (CC)
Running Time: 139 Minutes
Release Year: 1985
MPAA Rating: Not Rated