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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

LILLIE -- DVD review by porfle

When we first got cable TV back in the late 70s, one of my newfound delights was getting to watch British telly on PBS.  In addition to "Monty Python", "Fawlty Towers", and all the other usual stuff, this included a 13-episode "Masterpiece Theatre" serial about Lillie Langtry which, for some reason, had me glued to the screen for its entire run. 

Why was I hooked on what amounted to a lavishly-mounted, delightfully decadent soap opera that consisted of little more than the interpersonal relationships and illicit affairs of a bunch of idle upperclass twits?   I'm not quite sure, but watching Acorn Media's 4-disc DVD set LILLIE (1978) has given me a chance to relive the whole thing and get addicted to this nineteenth-century version of "The Rich and the Restless" all over again.

Lillie Langtry, as we all know (or not), started life as poor Jersey island girl Emilie Le Breton, a tomboy with six brothers who escaped her rural life by marrying the leisure-class yachtsman and trout fisherman Edward Langtry.  After moving to London, Lillie discovered that her new husband was near destitute and dependant on a small allowance from his family.  Fortunately, her great beauty and social confidence quickly earned her a place as the most sought-after woman in British society.

Francesca Annis (AGATHA CHRISTIE'S PARTNERS IN CRIME: THE TOMMY & TUPPENCE MYSTERIES, DUNE) is not only radiantly beautiful in the title role, but gives a bravura performance that captures every nuance of Lillie's personality from her most brazen and rebellious to her most insecure.  She inhabits the role just as convincingly as a naive fifteen-year-old first attracting the attention of the opposite sex (her first suitor is shocked to learn her true age while requesting her hand in marriage) as she will be in Lillie's wistful twilight years (despite some rather iffy old-age makeup). 

Lillie's loveless relationship with the dullard Edward gives the series its most gripping moments, with Anton Rodgers superb as the increasingly pathetic and irrelevant husband who detests Lillie's way of life but must dutifully play along or risk both his family's displeasure and withdrawal of financial support.  It's to the credit of both Rodgers and main scriptwriter David Butler that the character isn't entirely vilified but shown in an almost sympathetic light as he spirals ever downward into alcoholism and finally madness.

Despite the fact that Edward will continually deny Lillie the divorce she badly wants, this will do nothing to deter her from engaging in numerous torrid affairs with everyone from the Prince of Wales (Denis Lill as a robust "Bertie") to rich American tycoons, with even Wild West frontiersman Judge Roy Bean seeking her attention.  There's a certain vicarious thrill to watching her scramble up the social ladder while challenging the stiff conformity of her new peers at every turn, even though her life amounts to little more than one meaningless party or empty love affair after another. 

When financial ruin forces her to seek employment as an actress, this only leads to greater success and fame that will extend to America as well.  The series follows her exploits on both continents as her various theatrical tours cut a swath of notoriety wherever she goes, each scandal seemingly making her more popular than before. 

All the while, her entourage of fervent admirers grows to include famous artists such as James Whistler (Don Fellows) and her lifelong friend and confidant Oscar Wilde (the excellent Peter Egan), whose sharp-witted presence gives LILLIE a scintillating sparkle.  Jennie Linden is likable as Lillie's relatively down-to-earth high society pal Patsy Cornwallis-West.  Joanna David plays her illegitimate daughter Jeanne Marie, who, in some of the series most heartfelt moments, ultimately rejects her mother after discovering the true identity of her father.  (Look quick for 007's Desmond "Q" Llewelyn as Lord Dudley.)

Following the usual practice of the era, the show's exteriors are filmed while the interiors are shot on videotape.  Thanks mainly to some skillful lighting, however, the effect is less jarring than in many British TV shows of the time.  Overall, the production is solid on both sides of the camera--the sort of compelling period drama, done with taste and subtlety, that only British television seems capable of rendering to such a fine turn. 

The 4-disc DVD set from Acorn Media is in 4:3 full screen with Dolby Digital sound.  No subtitles, but closed-captioning is available.  Extras consist of cast filmographies and an insert featuring an essay on Lillie Langtry's lasting impact on pop culture.

While many will undoubtedly regard it as rather pointless and boring, I find LILLIE both nostalgic and compelling, and, for those who enjoy this sort of thing, first-class stuff all the way.  It's soap opera of the most sophisticated and decadently delicious kind--like a box of extremely rich chocolates, it almost feels fattening to watch.

Buy it at

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