Tag Archives: costume drama

Madonna of the Seven Moons (1945)

Food for my son, you cheap slut!”

Implausible but utterly delightful, the 1945 film Madonna of the Seven Moons from director Arthur Crabtree and based on the book by Margery Lawrence was one of the era’s successful Gainsborough costume dramas. Its story appealed to a female audience for its issues of escapism and the double life led by the film’s main character, Maddalena (Phyllis Calvert). So cast aside your skepticism at this story of Italian passion acted by a British cast whose upper class accents drum up visions of empire, and just enjoy this unlikely costume drama.

Maddalena is raped by a gypsy as a young girl, and she never discusses the incident. Finding relief in religion at her convent school, she’s horrified by the idea of marriage. Fast forward to Maddalena as the wife of successful wine merchant Guiseppe Labardi (John Stuart) as they await their only daughter’s return to Rome from boarding school in England. Angela (Patricia Roc) left as a child and returns five years later as a budding young woman who–to her mother’s horror–wears short skirts and travelled home alone with a young diplomat. While Angela’s father can accept the changes in his daughter, Maddalena cannot, and she overreacts rather dramatically to her daughter’s dress and actions. Since we are in on the fact that Maddalena was raped as a teenager, we understand what motivates her, and mainly it’s a concern that the same thing doesn’t happen to her daughter.

The plot thickens when Maddalena wakes up one night with a different identity. Stealing her own jewels, she grabs a train to Florence and disappears…

Labardi reveals to Angela that Maddalena has disappeared three times over the course of their marriage–the first time was right after the ceremony (so we can guess what that was about), the second time was when Angela was at boarding school, and now this disappearance makes the third time. Angela is determined to find her mother and tracks some of the missing jewelery to Florence.

Meanwhile Maddalena has returned to her old haunt in Florence. With no memory of a former life as the wife of a wealthy wine merchant, she knows herself only as Roseanna, the jealous, passionate mistress of Nino (Stewart Granger), the leader of a band of petty crooks. Maddalena returns to Nino’s life, throwing out his current mistress Vittoria (Jean Kent) with threats of violence. It’s great fun to see Phyllis Calvert morph from the neurotic pampered wife to sexually liberated gypsy.  Since Maddalena/Roseanna has been in and out of Nino’s life three times in almost 20 years, the story has some plausibility problems–not to mention the fact that it’s entirely possible for Angela to be Nino’s child, but the film doesn’t sail those dangerous waters, so instead Maddalena as Roseanna picks up where she left off.

Angela’s hunt for her mother is complicated by the fact that she trusts slimy gigolo/thief/con-man Sandro (Peter Glenville) to help her find her mother. Straining the coincidence factor, Sandro also happens to be Nino’s brother….

Ok, so it’s implausible, but I love these old Gainsborough films. Can’t help myself–although I think the best of the lot has to be The Wicked Lady followed by The Man in Grey. These costume dramas were designed to make the audience forget their real-life problems and provide the glamour that was glaringly absent during the austerity of WWII. Given that these films were tremendous box-offices successes in their day, I’d say that the studios achieved their goal, and for classic film lovers, these Gainsborough Pictures are gems to watch.

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Basil (1998)

Basil (1998)  is obviously a labour of love for writer/director Radha Bharadwaj. Based on a Wilkie Collins novel, the story contains all the dramatic elements often found in this Victorian author’s works–an inheritance, a dirty family secret, illegitimacy, and deception in love. It’s a good idea to keep in mind that Collins was known as a writer of ‘sensation novels’ during his lifetime.  The Lady in White and The Moonstone, which are his best-remembered novels have been adapted to the screen several times, and so I couldn’t resist watching a version of Basil.

The first scene of Basil depicts the ruins of Windermere–the family home in Cornwall. We know from the neglect of the house–both inside and out, that something bad has happened. Then it’s a zip back to Basil (Jackson Leach) as a tiny tot in a carriage rattling along to Cornwall with his father Frederick (Derek Jacoby), mother Agnes (Joanna John), and elder brother Ralph (Crispin Bonham-Carter). With the father sitting on one side of the carriage looking annoyed and bored to tears, sweet-faced, gentle Agnes and her two sons sit opposite. Frederick is distant and tuned out for the most part, but he rouses from his reverie just in time to hear little Basil telling one of his stories about a ‘masked man.’ Frederick tells his son off–imagination is, apparently, to this strict Victorian father, yet another deadly sin. And now that Frederick is roused enough to pay attention to his family, he delivers a lecture that one day Windermere will belong to Ralph, and that if little Basil is very good, he’ll will be “allowed to visit.”

This early scene, so very well constructed, sets the scene for the family dynamic that unfolds. Frederick is a cold and harsh father while Agnes overcompensates, and that sets the boys in the middle, wanting to please their father but afraid to communicate with him.

The film follows the fate of Ralph and Basil and their respective tragic love affairs into adulthood.  Jared Leto plays the adult Basil, and he’s a lonely young man who’s destined to learn some hard lessons. Christian Slater appears as John Mannion, a young man who befriends Basil. Claire Forlani is the beautiful Julia Sherwin (Margaret in the book), the daughter of a London merchant who captivates Basil when he first meets her. The scenes leading up to and including Basil’s meeting with Julia were quite beautiful.

The first half of the film was very strong and quite promising, but then as the story unfolds, it seemed to unravel–perhaps this was due to the time slot dictated by the standard film format. The second half concentrates on the events that take place and there’s a lot. This revenge-driven story is replete with suicides, death by abortion, death by childbirth, tuberculosis, a  mysterious hideously mutilated man, secret love affairs, secret marriages, disinheritance, and a couple of wastrel sons etc. To fit all this in the last half of a film that runs under 2 hours, well it’s enough to get your head spinning. As it stands, the second half of the film dashes along from confessions to revelations to tragic events–one event closely followed on the tail of another. This effectively emphasises the histrionics and deprives the story of necessary character development. Consequently, when characters come to their senses or face the results of their actions, the subsequent confessions and resolutions ring hollow.  

The director’s cut of the film never made it to the screen or to DVD, and that’s unfortunate and frustrating.

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The Wings of a Dove (1997)

“There’s far too much going on behind those pretty lashes.”

The wonderful period film The Wings of a Dove asks the question does the issue of money cloud or clarify love? Kate Croy (Helena Bonham Carter) is the product of a misalliance–her long-dead mother married badly, and Kate’s misanthrope father lives in poverty haunting the pubs, brothels and opium dens of London’s seamy side. Kate is rescued from poverty by her Aunt Maude (Charlotte Rampling), and when the film begins, Kate is living with Maude in her London mansion while her aunt plots to marry Kate to a wealthy man. Kate, however, is already in love with journalist Merton Densher (Linus Roache). Merton wants Kate to marry him, but while she meets him for secret trysts, she refuses to join Merton’s life of humble circumstances. She’s lived in the squalor of poverty, but she’s developed a taste for finer things. While Kate insists she loves Merton, she’s not willing to be a poor man’s wife.

Kate meets an American heiress, the “world’s richest orphan” Millie Theale (Alison Elliott), and the two young women become friends. But Kate, who learns that Millie is terminally ill, begins hatching a plot that will bring her both Merton and money in time….

Love is examined through these three complex characters–there’s Kate’s love–predicated on there being enough money to enjoy it, Merton’s love–he will do whatever he’s told to for the sake of love, and Millie’s all-encompassing fine other-worldly variety. Iain Softley’s adaptation of the Henry James novel is exquisite. Well-cast, beautifully acted, with gorgeous sets and costumes, the film is a feast for Henry James fans and lovers of British costume drama. But there’s so much more here than just the surface perfection of the film. The script captures the subtle nuances of Kate’s complicated character, so that by the time the film ends, many of her actions are left open to interpretation. Similarly, the highly-principled Merton, who becomes a willing tool in Kate’s scheme, is portrayed as a man who idealizes one woman while being passionately in love with a woman whose character he cannot admire. The last player in this tortured love triangle is Millie, and while she’s not as interesting a character as Kate (to either the viewer or Merton), she’s clearly the finer person who desperately wants to live, love and be loved in return. From director Iain Softley.

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