Judge Mike Pinsky once ruled England for four minutes, until Queen Elizabeth smacked him and demanded her crown back. Still, that ended better than Jane Grey's nine-day reign in 1553.
"I would die to free our people from the chains of bigotry and superstition."—Jane Grey (Helena Bonham Carter)
The facts of the case are well known: in the summer of 1553, in order to consolidate his hold on the monarchy of England, John Dudley, the President of the Council for King Edward VI, schemed to place the teenaged Lady Jane Grey on the throne, with his dissolute son Guilford as her husband. His motives were simple. If Henry VIII's daughter Mary succeeded her brother Edward, England would revert to Catholicism and Dudley and his fellow nobles, many of whom profited by the looting of Church property, would lose their heads. Mary was declared illegitimate, as was her Protestant sister Elizabeth (whom Dudley knew would not be his puppet). Jane was young, pious, and easily pushed around.
Queen Jane ruled for nine unhappy days, spending most of her time fussing over her wardrobe. The nobles, unhappy with Dudley, put him in charge of the army sent against Mary's insurrection. Mary won. Dudley, Jane, and Guilford all went to the executioner's block.
Now that we have that out of the way, we can acknowledge that Lady Jane is not good history. This is a romantic fantasy. Like one of those television movies that declaims "inspired by a true story," Trevor Nunn's costume drama tries gamely to combine young love with politics, but only succeeds in overworking its premise.
Our movie Jane (Helena Bonham Carter) is studious (she can read Plato in Greek) and demure, a level-headed Protestant whose intellectual capabilities compensate for a stifled and naïve passion. Married suddenly to the impetuous Guilford Dudley (Cary Elwes), Jane is drawn out of her shell, while her party-boy husband is reformed overnight. The lovers defiantly try to change the world during their short reign, empowered by their mutual love and sense of righteousness. But, of course, the evil grown-ups put a stop to their crusade.
Are we meant to see the youthful rebellion of Jane and Guilford as a 16th century counterculture movement, a "generation gap" conflict akin to the Nixon years? That might explain the lovers' vaguely liberal politics, chatted over in lieu of romantic gushing. So Jane's nine-day rule may be sort of summer of love for the Protestant Reformation. But David Edgar's script makes Jane and Guilford too unambiguously heroic: intelligent and passionate, beset by scheming men and the forces of history. I wonder what somebody like Margaret Atwood might do with such a character as Jane. Here, there is little complexity.
It is largely the performance of Helena Bonham Carter, only 20 at the time (the real Jane Grey was 16 during her reign), that keeps Jane from becoming merely a martyred mouthpiece for the film's politics. The film's first hour drags sluggishly, but once Jane and Guilford get their corsets off, Carter is freed up to give Jane a defiantly sexy attitude that makes her hypnotic. I remember seeing this film when it came out and developing a big crush on Helena Bonham Carter, even if the rest of the picture was dull.
Most of the rest of the cast, veteran British thespians (look for Patrick Stewart, in his last big role before donning a Starfleet uniform, as Jane's father), know how to handle this sort of historical material. Cary Elwes though is too much of a lightweight to match Carter on screen. And what is with his fluffy '80s hair? It looks like he borrowed the moussed up look from Christopher Atkins (or worse, Peter Scolari, at least according to my wife). This bad boy is no threat to any woman's honor. And somehow his petulance is really all about his disgust at his rich and corrupt father. Uh, yeah.
Trevor Nunn might have been able to heat things up a bit for this couple, if he did not let the drama wander. Nunn is best known for his work for the stage, and Lady Jane is a rare foray into the cinema. Indeed, it is his only film not based on a stage play. And it is clear that he does not have a strong sense of how to tighten up this material to work on screen. At nearly two and a half hours, Lady Jane lacks focus, trying to indulge too many actors and subplots. The result is that the enthusiasm of Jane and Guilford's relationship is as stifled for the audience as, well, it is for the young lovers.
Paramount does not seem to have much enthusiasm for this catalog title either, releasing it on DVD with an acceptable transfer and audio (although the melodramatic score seems a little leaden), but no extras other than some black-and-white publicity stills and behind-the-scenes shots. Fans of historical epics will likely find Lady Jane too stagy and claustrophobic to satisfy their need for pomp and circumstance. Romantics may find too little lovey-dovey wedged in between the political discourse. The real focus here is Helena Bonham Carter, who shows her acting chops as the doomed queen. So if you must wade through this historical morass of half-truths and costumed solemnity, enjoy the fire she brings to Lady Jane.
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