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Lady Jane

Lady Jane
Paramount Home Video
1986 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 142 min. / Street Date February 18, 2003 / $19.99
Starring Helena Bonham Carter, Cary Elwes, John Wood, Michael Hordern, Jill Bennett, Jane Lapotaire, Sara Kestelman, Patrick Stewart, Warren Saire
Cinematography Douglas Slocombe
Production Designer Allan Cameron
Art Direction Fred Carter, Martyn Hebert
Film Editor Anne V. Coates
Original Music Stephen Oliver
Written by Chris Bryant and David Edgar
Produced by Peter Snell
Directed by Trevor Nunn

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 used their 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 released yesterday.

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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
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 crumulent word.

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

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