“I’d rather look worn than dull.”
Set in colourful 17th century England, The Wicked Lady is a ribald bodice-ripping tale about a woman who is determined to get everything she wants … no matter the cost. When the film begins, Carolina (Glynis Barber) is about to be married to the wealthy middle-aged Lord Ralph Skelton (Denholm Elliott). When her ‘best friend’ Barbara (Faye Dunaway) arrives to be the maid of honour, things begin to go wrong. Barbara casts her eyes on Sir Ralph (his home, & his money) and decides to seduce him. Naturally she succeeds, so when the wedding takes place it’s between Barbara and Sir Ralph with Carolina nursing a broken heart. At the reception, Barbara meets handsome stranger Kit Locksby (Oliver Tobias), but it’s too late for her change her plans–she’s married and soon buried in the boredom of country life.
A series of events leads Barbara to alleviate her dull existence, and she meets highwayman, Jerry Jackson (Alan Bates) and takes him as a lover. She leads a double life–discontented spoiled wife by day and highwaywoman by night.
Faye Dunaway plays the role of Lady Skelton with tongue in cheek style–echoing the flair and bravado of the swashbuckling films of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Errol Flynn. She never takes herself too seriously–whether she’s seducing men, pretending to be pious to satisfy servant Hogarth (John Gielgud) or exchanging vicious barbs with nasty sister-in-law (Prunella Scales).
Basically this is a story of a women whose role in life isn’t enough for her–penned in by her sex and financial dependency, she goes wild. And this is the film’s overwhelming appeal. Unfortunately the film, directed by Michael Winner insists on displaying an obsession with topless women–no doubt this is a token signal of the complexity of the times–but after a while these constantly inserted scenes are superfluous and silly. Oliver Tobias is supposed to be a romantic hero, but he never seems to warm up to his role. Faye Dunaway makes the film, and one of the best scenes occurs when Lady Skelton and a wench hold a whipping match. Based on the novel by Magdalen King-Hall, the film is solid entertainment with an occasional tendency towards cheesiness.