The Wicked Lady Review

England, the 17th Century. Caroline (Patricia Roc) is due to marry Sir Ralph Skelton (Griffith Jones), but just as the wedding is about to take place, Ralph admits that he really loves Caroline’s friend Barbara (Margaret Lockwood). Ralph and Barbara marry, but soon Barbara is bored by domesticity. Inspired by tales of the legendary highwayman Captain Jackson (James Mason), Barbara disguises herself as a highwayman…

The Wicked Lady is the archetypal example of the Gainsborough melodrama, a highly popular if critically disdained genre that flourished in the 1940s. The basic formula was simple: to take all the elements of popular romantic fiction and put it on the big screen. Strong female leads playing against dashingly handsome men, lavish frocks and period settings, fast-moving adventure…these films had the lot. Needless to say and whatever the critics said, they were catnip for an audience in austere times, just coming out of World War II, and they made stars of Margaret Lockwood and Patricia Roc, the two actresses most associated with the genre. The two would reunite in Jassy, which is much the same mixture with Technicolor added – all the better to show off Roc’s Titian tresses. In America, the ladies’ décolleté gowns were a little too much for the censors of the day, and much of the film had to be reshot with these garments a little less off the shoulder. Michael Winner remade the film in 1983 with Faye Dunaway in the lead, a version most notable for an all-female whip fight that caused a public confrontation between Winner and the BBFC.

Nowadays, more critical attention is paid to popular entertainment, and more than once it’s possible to use disparaged genres (anything associated with female audiences, for starters) to be more subversive than you’d be allowed to be in something more prestigious. As with the melodramas made by Max Ophuls and Douglas Sirk in the USA around this time, Gainsborough Studios’ output has come into feminist attention. You can certainly see why: films like The Wicked Lady place a woman, and her desires, at the centre of the narrative. Wicked she may be, but she sins in style and any comeuppance (necessary to get the film past the Hays Office, for one thing) is really a token one. It’s the transgression that provided the thrills. Censorship of the day wouldn’t allow anything too explicit, but there’s no escaping the fact that sex is very much on these characters’ minds. There’s a considerable amount of innuendo in the script. Put it this way, given the choice of a good time with dashingly bad James Mason, or marriage to boring old Griffith Jones, what do you think the audiences in 1945 would have wished for? Roc has the usually thankless role of the virtuous woman, but plays it with enough spirit to avoid Caroline becoming cloying. But it’s Lockwood’s film and she smoulders her way through it.

Writer-director Leslie Arliss is no stylist in the Ophuls/Sirk mode, far from it…but he concentrates on telling this story, based on a novel by Magdalen King-Hall, and keeping up a rapid pace. The film does drag a little in its final half hour, and the storyline probably doesn’t bear too close examination. But on the whole The Wicked Lady still entertains, nearly sixty years after it was made.

Carlton’s DVD is encoded for Region 2 only. The transfer is full-frame, befitting the film’s original ratio of 1.37:1, so anamorphic enhancement is unnecessary. This is a film which seems to have been kept in good condition, as it has an excellent DVD transfer. Jack Cox’s camerawork comes off well, with strong blacks, properly white whites and many shades of grey in between. Occasionally it’s a little soft – though that’s inevitable with the close-ups of Lockwood and Roc as they’re intended to look that way – and there’s some grain and minor aliasing visible, but there’s nothing too much to worry about.

The sound is the original mono. It sounds fine, though there is some background hiss if you turn it up more than you’re likely to want to. Needless to say the dynamic range is narrower than you’d get on a modern soundtrack, but it’s a fine example of 40s professional standards and should be respected as such. There are twelve chapter stops. Subtitles are available for the feature but not the trailer.

The only extra is the theatrical trailer, which is full-frame and runs 1:57. It’s very much of its time. With a film like this, you sense something of a missed opportunity. This is the British off-the-shoulder version The Wicked Lady. If reproducing the entire American version would be impractical – though it’s been done for other DVDs, for example Strangers on a Train – then just maybe the reshot scenes could have been included as extras. The death of Patricia Roc in 2003 almost certainly deprived us of the chance of a new interview with anyone directly connected with the film, but isn’t there any material in the archives? And couldn’t a critic be hired to provide a commentary? This edition of The Wicked Lady is fine as far as it goes, but you suspect there’s a Special Edition possible and this isn’t it.

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