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Betsan Morris Evans
Lillie Langtry, trapped in a loveless marriage, takes full advantage of her beauty, attracting many lovers and admirers including the Prince of Wales and Oscar Wilde. As her husband slowly drinks himself to death, Lillie embarks upon a sensational career as a somewhat talented yet beautiful actress in Britain and the United States. Throughout her life she attracts rich and sometimes brutal lovers, endures financial ruin and scandal, yet maintains her dignity, elegance, and a certain amount of her beauty until the end of her life. Written by
I almost gave up after watching the first few episodes of this mini-series, where the BBC fell back on its standard "close-up of unblinking female faces" instead of giving us a *clue* what the characters were thinking and why they were behaving the way they did.
I'm so grateful I stayed with the series. Once it got past Lillie's "awkward adolescence" (which seemed to be more a case of "awkward script-writing"), I almost couldn't stop watching. This is a lovely portrait of the Gilded Age. Francesca Annis does an outstanding job with her role as Lillie evolves from naive fawn through sharp, resilient businesswoman and into a more mellow old age.
Along the way we meet Oscar Wilde, written and played to perfection, Bertie Prince of Wales, John Whisler, Sara Bernhardt, Princess Alix, Disraeli and Gladstone, and a wide variety of others (both well-known today and the obscure) who made up a society that seems alien and totally contemporary at the same time.
I found myself dazzled by Langtry's audacity -- to my embarrassment, I even gasped alongside the characters on screen at times! Yet, like fictional heroine Scarlett O'Hara or scores of real-life trail-blazing women such as Elizabeth I, Langtry did what she had to do to create the life she desired. It wasn't all pretty, and the appalling double standards for women and men made some of her choices inevitable, but her courage and fierce intelligence took my breath away. The fact that Annis plays her not as a straight "conniving b***h" but as a complex woman pulled between her desire for independence and her need to love and be loved makes it that much more interesting. There are moments when one detests her character, only to be overtaken minutes later by her kindness and thoughtfulness.
The series suffers from very awkward cuts as it jumps forward in time at odd intervals. One wonders why they couldn't include a subtitle telling us the year at least! Like many BBC productions of the era, the sound is uneven and some of the editing a bit long and tedious. It also left some fairly large holes in the plot, such as the complete absence of Alice Keppel, Bertie's most famous mistress. But it's by far the best production I've seen from the BBC of that era. I found myself wondering what it would look like with "Forsyte Saga" production values today.
This would be a wonderful series to watch with teenagers in order to examine social mores. Themes of peer pressure, the "in crowd," double standards for men and women, sexual politics, class, and much more are present in almost every episode.
By the time the series was half over, I was already looking for a good biography of Lillie so I could know how much of the series was accurate. It's rare for a series to fire the imagination to such a great extent. A wonderful series, masterfully acted by Annis (as well as Denis Lill as Bertie and Peter Egan as Wilde). Highly recommended.
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