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Is there anything Helen Mirren can't do? I've been enjoying a bit of a Mirren-fest now for some time in my reviewing duties here at DVDTalk, including some of her early work with which I wasn't that familiar. Her BBC television collection and first film Age of Consent have helped make me even more aware of Mirren's incredible prowess. In fact, it's that prowess itself that may be one of the minor quibbles for some viewers in Painted Lady, a fascinating if at times disturbing mystery involving art thieves. The problem is that Mirren is called upon to play a once famous British blues singer named Maggie Sheridan (think Marianne Faithfull), who finds herself at the center of a murder that seems linked to stolen art. That part Mirren pulls off with aplomb. But then Sheridan is forced to go undercover, as it were, and adopt the role of a Polish countess in order to finagle her way into the upper echelons of art snobs and the megarich. Well, Mirren pulls that off with aplomb, too, and there's the rub--how did the drug-addled blues singer Sheridan who's obviously seen better days get the wherewithal to so effortlessly assume the alias of a Polish countess with a few too many consonants in her name?
If you can get past that sleight of actorly hand, there's a lot to enjoy in Painted Lady, which was broadcast stateside a few years ago on Masterpiece Theater. There are actually several mysteries that Sheridan finds herself attempting to unravel, the chief of them why her surrogate father Charles Stafford (Iain Cuthbertson) is brutally murdered during an art heist at his Irish estate. That quickly is revealed to perhaps be a part of a messy situation with Stafford's son Sebastian (Iain Glen), who is up to his red eyeballs in drug debts to an Irish crime overlord. The two plotlines converge, with several other subplots, over a three hour plus running time that has Mirren pulling out all the stops, low key as they may be at times, in a bravura performance that lets her do everything from elegance to shocked vulnerability.
While any good amateur crime busting viewer is probably going to put two and two together with regard to the mysterious art collector played by Franco Nero and how his character fits into the multigenerational saga of the Stafford clan, the rest of the mystery plays out in appealing Byzantine fashion, with a certain high-mindedness to boot, as various classic works of art play into the plotline. There are certain lapses in logic, of course--the first time Sheridan, as the Countess, travels to New York to take part in a high stakes auction, she makes it there with no problem. Later in the telefilm, as the various plot strands are being woven into the denoument, when she returns to New York, suddenly she's recognized as Sheridan by a customs official, putting a temporary kibosh on the climax. It's a little silly, and one of the few missteps Painted Lady makes along the way.
Painted Lady, despite its haute couture ambience, is nonetheless surprisingly gritty and downright stomach churning at times. Two scenes especially are not for the faint of heart--one where Sebastian is taken prisoner by a putative gay lover whose sadomasochistic foreplay becomes something much more serious, and another, toward the end of the film, when an adversary has Sheridan in a headlock and then suddenly has his head blown apart by a third person, with the resulting brain splatter covering Sheridan's face. It puts a whole new spin on high class art collecting, that much is certain.
Despite the rather long running time, there's little padding showing in Painted Lady, a testament to the fine work done by Mirren and Nero. Nero has frankly never been better; he has none of the stiffness that sometimes seems to accompany his performances, and his final scene with Mirren is excitingly visceral and poignant. Mirren of course is stupendous, inhabiting both Sheridan and the Countess with absolute ease. It makes the scenes where she's suddenly helpless all the more gut wrenching.
This is a nicely produced and well directed telefilm, with a literate and intelligent screenplay that makes the most of star Mirren's distinctive performance style while spanning the globe in a number of great location shots including everything from the sylvan Irish countryside to the urban jungle of New York City. Painted Lady may not have entered the public consciousness as much as, say, Prime Suspect or The Queen, but it is undoubtedly one of Mirren's more commanding performances from the 1990s and any fan of her work is going to enjoy this despite its occasional lapses of logic.
British television films finally stopped looking like third generation video dubs sometime in the 1990s, and Painted Lady therefore has a neatly crisp full frame image with good color and generally good contrast (some of the night scenes are a bit hard to make out). There's just the tiniest hint of softness and grain occasionally, typically in overlit scenes in some of the art segments. Overall, though, this is a fine looking television film.
The DD 2.0 soundtrack is also nicely handled, with Mirren handling the lip-synching for Sheridan's song quite well, and the music filling the mix with good range and excellent fidelity. All dialogue is easy to hear and there are no anomalies whatsoever in this soundtrack. English SDH subtitles are available.
A biography of Mirren is included.
Painted Lady is an unusually complex mystery that takes its time revealing its many layers. While at least a couple of plot points won't surprise any avid armchair sleuth, the real fun of this enterprise is watching Mirren tear into two roles with that elegant ferocity that only she can muster. Highly recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet