Saturday, 14 January 2012

Movie Review -- Lady Caroline Lamb (1972)

 ‘Lady Caroline Lamb’ may not be the greatest movie ever made, but I happen to like it. Very much. It’s about the tempestuous love affair between Lady Caroline Lamb, (the wife of Lord Melbourne), and the poet Lord Byron.  My senior English class was taken to see ‘Lady Caroline Lamb’ at the pictures by an over-zealous teacher, far too many years ago for me to remember.  I don’t recall studying the poetry of Lord Byron at school, so I suspect our teacher was playing hookie with us by proxy. 

Sarah Miles as Lady Caroline Lamb
Going to the pictures was a good way of escaping the schoolroom. In our senior year we were allowed the freedom of going to see a  movie – any movie -- that  had anything remotely to do with what we were studying for exams. I suspect our teacher closed her eyes and used a pin to stab at the local paper’s entertainment page because she wanted a break, but this is only conjecture on my part. Not meaning to sound ungrateful, for I preferred being at the movies to being at school, so I knew she was doing us a favour, whether she thought she was or not.

Based on real-life historical characters, ‘Lady Caroline Lamb’ is set in the early 19th century, during the Napoleonic wars, and the defeat of French forces by the English at Waterloo. Born to the purple in 1785, Lady Caroline Ponsonby married the Hon. William Lamb, heir to the 1st Lord Melbourne in 1805. In 1812 she embarked on a foolish, but passionate liaison with George Gordon, Lord Byron. In the film, Byron and Caroline’s first meeting is depicted at a bare-knuckle boxing match. These pugilistic events were frequent in Regency England at the time.

a portrait of  historical Lady Caroline Lamb
Lord Byron, (played by Richard Chamberlain) gambols into the make-shift ring and promptly disposes of his much larger adversary. Lady Caroline  (Sarah Miles) is present. He informs Lady Caroline that he has no money and she invites him to have dinner with her, where he orders a meal of potatoes and vinegar. Hence is the start of their tempestuous relationship, played out against the backdrop of a malicious and disapproving upper-crust society. You’ve never seen a bunch of dislikeable  snobs like these before, this side of ‘Age of Innocence’ (1992). But where would a tempestuous relationship be, without a bunch of frustrated socialites clucking their tongues as they spied on you in the background getting on with it? 

Lamb’s mother ( Margaret Leighton) is against her son marrying Caroline. Caroline was very much at odds with her society in that she shunned, almost violently so, the sexual hypocrisies of her era. Her downfall appears, at least in the film, to be her lack of  ‘discretion’, which let powerful men do what they wished, with the onus being on the woman to keep quiet about what was going on..

Mad, bad, dangerous to know?
  William Lamb (Jon Finch) loves his wife through everything, despite her immodest behaviour and inconstancy. He is eventually appointed as ambassador to Ireland, but is told by King George IV (Ralph Richardson) that he should leave his wife behind if he cannot guarantee that she will ‘behave’ properly.  (According to Wikipedia, this  is not historically accurate.) The film concludes sadly, as a testament to how Byron broke Lady Caroline’s heart, by being ‘mad, bad, and dangerous to know’, much like Caroline herself.

 Firstly, you should watch ‘Lady Caroline Lamb’ in its original wide-screen aspect ratio. It looks pretty ravishing. Photographed by Oswald Morris, the rural  English countryside is truly picturesque. With Art Direction by Carmen Dillon, its interiors are  quite beautiful, and seem truly authentic. If you like lavish costume design, then you may also be in seventh heaven: Sarah Miles looks  lovely as she dresses to seduce Lord Byron.  That is at least, before being deserted by him.  

Historic houses true to the Regency period were used for exterior shots, namely Chatsworth House, home to the (current) Duke and Duchess of Devonshire; Brocket Hall and Wilton House. (They are open to the public at the moment. Just do a Google search.) All three appear to be fully preserved as of 1972 when the film was made and add an atmosphere that is pleasingly authentic as an historic backdrop to the more personal dramas of the protaganists. The musical score by Richard Rodney Bennett is for a full symphony and is by turns melodic with solo viola,  and evocative of the romantic era in classical music, the period of Beethoven, Schubert and other great classical composers.

watch the film for an explanation of this still
 ‘Lady Caroline Lamb’, was written by Robert Bolt, as well as being directed by him. The writer of such epics as Doctor Zhivago, and Lawrence of Arabia, Bolt curbs the historical detail in favour of a closer look at the relationships that Lady Caroline had with her husband, her lover and her society at large.

 Laurence Olivier is in the film briefly, playing the Duke of Wellington, but the most interesting thing he does, is wearing what appears to be a false nose. Whilst  some people do not like Sarah Miles and find her a little mannered in speech, I think she’s perfectly cast in the lead role. She captures Caroline’s delicacy as well as her iron will to live life on her own terms, which, being two extremely contrasting personality traits, must be a difficult thing for even the most accomplished actress to pull off. She gives herself to the part, which has the viewer sympathising with her through every temper tantrum, when they could be laughing  at her. But I think she does  well. 

The Iron Duke & Caroline in intimate conversation
Jon Finch seems to SHOUT OUT some of his lines, when he should be merely speaking them. Maybe it was a case of being misdirected by a first-time director, but he gives a sympathetic rendering of the lovelorn, but faithful William Lamb. Richard Chamberlain shows a different side to himself as the selfish and indifferent Lord Byron, as he trundles around the edges of the English upper class, rootless, but believing in his talent as a poet, and breaking lots of  hearts on his melancholy way to fame and fortune.

As I said at the beginning. ‘Lady Caroline Lamb’ is not without its faults, but I also think it has its share of virtues. If you’re looking for an undemanding but solid, romantic costume drama, based on a little bit of history with some good lead and supporting players (I also forgot to mention that John Mills is also in the cast), as well as excellent production values,  I recommend ‘Lady Caroline Lamb’.

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