Judge Gordon Sullivan won't come in; his fear of phony interior sets is acting up again.
Her beauty broke hearts. Her behavior broke boundaries.
In the twenty-first century, we are jaded to celebrity, totally used to seeing people famous for being famous. However, it wasn't always that way, and the rise of mass media—first newspapers, then cinema, radio, and television—roughly corresponds to the rise of celebrity culture. Many of the things we associate with current celebrity—such as endorsements and bad behavior—had their start in the Victorian era. One of the women who pioneered this form of celebrity culture is Lillie Langtry. Though her nominal job was as an actress on the stage, she cut a wide swath through London society because of her beauty, charm, and willingness to be the mistress to powerful men (including the future Edward VII of England). Her influence on popular culture—including Sherlock Holmes' Irene Adler and several films based on the life of Judge Roy Bean—is perhaps most notable today. Because of her popularity, she's appeared as a character in several films and biopics in her right, one of which is 1974's BBC production of Lillie. Though it will likely appeal to fans of that era of BBC television, Lillie has not aged well for modern audiences.
Facts of the Case
Lille Langtry (Francesca Annis, Dune) was born a country girl, but she married for money and came to London. There, she rose to prominence as an artist's muse, and later actress. Along the way, she became an early celebrity and found herself the mistress of the Prince of Wales (Denis Lill, Richard III). Over thirteen 50-minute episodes, Lillie chronicles the rise and fall of one of London's famous beauties.
In the early 1970s, the BBC was in a pretty sweet position. It didn't have the lavish funding of the average movie, but it did have license to adapt a whole host of literary and historical texts with the full knowledge that they'd be seen by a significant percentage of the country. Here, many of its products also saw airing on Masterpiece Theater. They parleyed this success into a series of productions that themselves spawned sequels. We got things like The BBC Tudors Collection, and a miniseries like Edward the King (about King Edward VII) spinning off into the thirteen-part Lillie, with Francesca Annis reprising her role (though not, strangely, the rest of the main cast).
Lillie comes largely from the era of studio-bound BBC productions, before they could afford to borrow large estates to stage a show like Downton Abbey. Instead, the vast majority of the show happens in small rooms with elaborate set decorations and costumes intended to carry the period.
I linger so long on the production details of Lillie because that's likely the be the biggest sticking point for anyone approaching the series in the twenty-first century. The settings look fine, and everyone involved with costuming and set dressing should be commended. However, they can't overcome the fact that these scenes are almost all taking place on a set; more importantly, a set that always looks like a set. That's fine for a number of Shakespeare adaptations, where the words spoken by the actors trump any necessity for realistic sets. It doesn't quite work as well in a series that is based on actual people that presents a number of historical figures. The deeper problem is that Lillie is so completely a product of her time—from her associations with figures like Whistler and Wilde to her affair with the Princes of Wales—that the sets can't hope to give us the sense and scope of Victorian England that modern audiences take for granted.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
With all that said, there's a lot to recommend Lillie. The first, of course, is Lillie herself. She was obviously a force of nature and a great beauty of her time. She seemed to care very little about societal norms, and had the will and intelligence to look out for herself in a society that constantly tried to put her in a single role. That kind of dynamic character makes her the perfect subject for a biopic, and as women have gained increasing agency in the time since she died, I imagine her story would be even more interesting today than it was 100 years ago. Just as significantly, her story gives filmmakers the opportunity to introduce some of the Victorian era's most interesting figures. There's Oscar Wilde, Henry Whistler, Prince "Bertie," and the Queen of England herself, Victoria.
All of these (in)famous characters are brought to life by excellent actors. Francesca Annis shines as Lillie, offering the combination of brains and beauty that seemed to so captivate London in the late 1800s. Denis Lill is sufficiently imperious and impulsive as the Prince of Wales, while Peter Egan's Oscar Wilde is flamboyant but well drawn. Even Victoria's relatively small appearance is well-handled by Sheila Reed.
This DVD set doesn't do any harm to the series either. Spreading over eleven hours of programming across four discs give these 1.33:1 transfers enough room to avoid series compression artefacts. With that said, these episodes appear to have been shot on video, which means colors are a bit washed out, detail isn't as strong as I'd like, and there is occasional interlacing interference with some movement. They're watchable transfers, probably the best that can be done with the material, but hardly reference quality. The stereo audio does a fine job with the dialogue, keeping things clear and balanced, though not demonstrating much in the way of sound design. The set includes a printed insert that discusses Lillie Langtry's impact on pop culture, along with cast filmographies on the disc themselves.
Lillie is the kind of miniseries that fans of old-school Masterpiece Theater will appreciate. The subject is interesting, the acting well-done, and the costumes gorgeous. However, modern viewers not weaned on the stage-bound sets of the era might have trouble looking past the wobbly walls to get involved in the historical drama. This is also not the first time the series has been released on DVD, and those with the previous version have no reason to upgrade to this one.
Though the court would welcome an updated take on the life of Lillie Langtry,
Lillie is not guilty.
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