Regular readers will know that in times of crisis, I reach for the deflated life-jacket that is the films of Michael Winner. Why do I do it to myself, I wonder out loud? Winner was a major director when I was a kid, never off the telly explaining away his latest controversy; a troll, perhaps, but one who got his films made and attracted remarkable talents. Faye Dunaway, John Gielgud and Denholm Elliot didn’t work for peanuts and yet this remake of the 1945 classic bodice-ripper, made for the Cannon imprint, is a strange mixture of sex, violence and marble-mouthed intrigue that satisfied no-one but the director himself.
Pitched as ‘Bonnie and Clyde in the 17th century,’ The Wicked Lady is the story of wicked Lady Barbara Skelton (Dunaway), nobility by day, highway-woman by night. She teams up with industry expert Jerry Jackson (Alan Bates) for some skulduggery, but authorities take a dull view of their antics, and the ornate walls of the country-houses they inhabit begin to close in on them.
Winner is less concerned with the narrative as he is of creating a relentless spank-bank of undressed women, and a lengthy topless fight scene with whips aroused the interest of the British censor. Updating the Gainsborough paradigm with lashings of nudity and a synth score from Genesis keyboard maestro Tony Banks does give this one some unique flavour; this isn’t Winner’s worst by a long shot. This is mainly because of Dunaway’s performance, over-the-top to some degree, but providing a centre that keeps things just about watchable.
Winner seemed to be great at the art of the deal, and even the support provides some amusement; Glynis Barber! Joan Hickson! Oliver Tobias! Prunella Scales! All sorts are dragged into the mud here, kicking and screaming, much as I was when the film ended. But The Wicked Lady is manna from heaven for bad movies watchers, and for fans of Mommie Dearest, and there are legion, this is proof that for the estimable Dunaway, that slice of slock was no fluke.