Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
I'd previously only seen a few minutes of Lady Jane on cable television a few years
back, in a terrible-quality print that gave me no idea of how beautifully shot it is, and
what a good movie I'd missed. Forget the English history lesson, this works whether or not you know
who succeeded who, or how many of Henry the VIII's wives got axed.
Lady Jane does an excellent job of turning the pitiful 9-day rule of Jane Grey into an
exciting picture. It even makes the central theme of Catholic-vs-Protestant a dynamic one.
There's a surprise every minute, and even the star-crossed lovers played by
Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride) and Helena Bonham Carter (A Room with a View) are
riveting. It was so entertaining, I even forgot to expect a big fight or a battle.
With Henry VIII gone, a group of Protestant nobles led by John Dudley, the
Duke of Nothumberland (John Wood) conspires to influence the sickly heir, King Edward VI (Warren
Saire) to skip over the expected next in line, Princess Mary (Jane Lapotaire) and will the crown
to his cousin, Lady Jane Grey (Helena Bonham Carter). Nothumberland and his cronies have already
influence with Edward to abolish the Catholic churches and loot their valuables, dispossessing
a myriad of peasants who farmed the church land free of charge. The Duke arranges for Lady Jane
to marry his own son, the prodigal Guilford Dudley (Cary Elwes). As both are only 15 years
old, Wood and Jane's father Henry Gray, the Duke of Suffolk (Patrick Stewart) reckon the teens
easy to control. But to everyone's surprise, Jane and Guilford's sullen marriage turns into a love
match, and they counter-conspire to use their newfound roles as Queen and King for virtuous
purposes. The Dukes have little time to whip them into shape, however, as Princess Mary immediately
leads a rebel army of Catholics to take back her rightful crown.
Shakespeare should have made this story into a play. 1
The turns of fortune for Jane are dizzying. She's forced into a marriage one day, falling in romantic love
soon thereafter, and finally rushed into becoming the Queen of England, where she and her consort
hold an idyllic but amazingly brief reign. Jane and Guilford are real teenagers, with familiar teenage
concerns - he begins as a total wastrel, she a wallflower bookworm. But the little flash of inspiration and
virtuous charity that grows in them seems very credible, even if the romantic side of things, according
to the history books, is a bit exaggerated. They're very much like a Romeo and Juliet, a pair
of dreamers just smart enough to realize that they're in the center of a scheme, and foolish enough
to think that they can outsmart their parents. As it turns out, they never get the chance.
History overtakes them like an oncoming train.
The surprises come when Mary (Mary, Queen of Scots, I believe 3)
returns from an offscreen rebellion,
and the innocent new Queen becomes a de facto usurper, and all of her family's cronies, traitors.
We're ready for a protracted battle between the obstinate teen and the scheming Duke of
Nothumberland (a great performance by John Wood). We're also expecting Jane and Guilford to either
triumph over her manipulative, greedy parents, or to be somehow crushed by them.
But fate pulls the rug out from under them all. When the tables turn on the Protestant schemers, the
nefarious Nothumberland turns out to be
strangely sympathetic ... it certainly wasn't his plan to doom the fortunes of everyone he knows, and
to have to eat his words (and denounce his faith) to keep his head. Jane's parents initially come off as
voracious opportunists, callously using their daughter to secure a cozy future. Mother (Sara
Kestleman) couldn't be more severe as she whips her Jane for refusing to marry. When someone
mentions the Catholic treasures that have been plundered, we also see a quick pan to the gold on
the Duchess's mantle. But when the chips are down, Jane's father chooses to fight with the remaining
rebels, perhaps to atone to his daugher for the wrong he's done. Patrick Stewart is both
convincing and compelling in the role - going noble at just the time when his daughter actually
needs it the least.
The faith issue is handled beautifully, with Jane introduced making a spirited denouncement of
the Catholic sacraments to the bemused Doctor Feckingham (Michael Hordern). He'll return at the
end as a confessor, when she refuses to switch faith to save her neck, as so many around her do.
The commitment to a Christian life-after-death she shares with Guilford, makes their martyrdom
very touching, and believable.
Also standing out in the drama are Jill Bennett (The Nanny,
The Criminal) as Mrs. Ellen, Jane's nanny,
and Jane Lapotaire
(The Asphyx as Princess Mary. The script
intriguingly dooms Jane for three reasons: her refusal to embrace Catholicism, her father's
rebellion, and the fact that Mary wants to wed a fancy Spanish royal. Catholic Spain demands the
heads of the heretical usurpers as part of the pre-nuptial agreement. Mary comes off as a ruthless
Black Widow (not unlike the similar role in They Live By Night), willing to bargain for
love over dead bodies. Like everything else in the show, it's a compelling notion.
Paramount's DVD of Lady Jane is a dazzler. Douglas Slocombe's cinematography is as good as
any period picture I've seen, and the lavish but low-key production is not to be faulted. The
picture never looks small, and refuses to use its crowds for the empty 'bigness' of some
older spectacles. 2
The soundtrack is handsomely mixed, and both picture and audio track look as if the film were
The only extra is a photo gallery. Artwork, menus, and the cover treatment are first-class.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Lady Jane rates:
Supplements: photo gallery
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 1, 2003
1. An unwise statement from someone who doesn't know Shakespeare well
enough to know if he DID make Lady Jane into a play ...
2. Not to be confused with embiggens. Bigness is a perfectly
3. A note from someone who obviously knows their English history, 3/1/03:
I read your review of 'Lady Jane' and ... I agree with most everything
you wrote. But to clarify, the Princess Mary in this movie is NOT Mary
Queen of Scots. This Princess Mary is Henry VIII's first daughter, and
half-sister to the young King Edward we see in the movie. She is also
a half-sister to Princess Elizabeth, whom we do not see in the movie.
Mary, Queen of Scots was a somewhat distant cousin to Mary, Elizabeth,
and Edward. The Princess Mary you see in this film would become known
to history as "Bloody Mary," due to her penchant for burning Protestants.
One of the subtle ironies of LADY JANE is that Queen Mary's marriage to
the Spanish King Philip-- for which she sacrificed Jane and Guilford--
turned out a dismal failure. For much of her brief reign (only about six
years or so), Queen Mary was miserable, physically ill, and mentally unstable.
And you are right-- Shakespeare should have written a play about the Lady
Jane Grey. I think perhaps her story was still a little too recent to
be dramatized by him. Jane was born only 23 years before Shakespeare was.
Sorry for the history lesson, but I thought you might like to know. Regards, Elizabeth
Elizabeth - please don't be sorry! I'm grateful for the history lesson, as will be my readers. Thanks very much! Glenn Erickson
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson