Natalie Dormer distinguishes herself with her first leading role in BBC2's wilfully lurid exploitation of the beloved British costume drama. Even more notable than Dormer's confident performance is the film's ability to be the most lavish, luscious and fetishistic of period dramas, whilst gracefully exemplifying the subjugation of women permitted by British law not 300 years ago.
The Scandalous Lady W (2015 - UK) written by David Eldridge / based on the book by Hallie Rubenhold / directed by Sheree Folkson / produced by Madonna Baptiste / starring Natalie Dormer, Shaun Evans, Aneurin Barnard, Oliver Chris / cinematography by Shane Daly / music by Alexander Balanescu / companies: Wall to Wall, BBC Drama
Adapted from historian Hallie Rubenhold's book Lady Worsley's Whim, David Eldridge's script neatly delineates the vulgar subjugation of married women under British law in the 18th Century. Whilst the opening title card's assertion that "This is a true story" must undoubtedly be taken with a pinch of salt, Eldridge and director Sheree Folkson serve up a delicious nougat for contemporary audiences to indulge in a base lust for juicy gossip, whilst also egging on an underdog heroine with a fabulous wardrobe. Eldridge stages the action around the criminal conversation case against George Bisset in which Sir Richard Worsley of the Isle of Wight attempted to extract financial reparation from Bisset for committing adultery with, Lady Seymour Worsley. Billed by the BBC as a lavish costume drama about a woman given agency by her decision to divorce her loathsome husband and run away with his best friend, The Scandalous Lady W is more a fable of female empowerment for the 21st Century, which revels in its dry mockery of the period, always in a way that is more entertaining than it is self serving.
Married at the age of 17 to Sir Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans), Seymour Fleming (Natalie Dormer) is a wealthy heiress whose marriage takes a turn when Richard reveals his proclivity for voyeurism. Indeed, watching Seymour through the keyhole to their bedroom is the only way that Richard can get excited. Soon Richard asks Seymour to have sex with his friend Viscount Deerhurst (Oliver Chris), whilst he watches. As the couple cycle through numerous bit-players they befriend and strike up an exotic ménage à trois with their new neighbour George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), with whom Seymour eventually falls in love. Richard's boorish behaviour and entitlement to his every whim grows ever more difficult for Seymour to bear and she elopes with George, demanding a divorce from Richard and custody of their daughter. In retaliation Richard sets-out to ruin George by demanding an impossible compensation of £20,000. The only way that Seymour and her lawyer can reduce the sum being demanded is to prove that Seymour's sexual fidelity was not worth £20,000 at the time of her elopement. So begins a campaign to air Seymour and Richard's dirty laundry and reveal just how many individual lovers he watched her take as he squatted behind the keyhole. Though Seymour's attack on Richard's voyeurism doesn't exactly tout her an equal opportunities sexual freedom fighter, she emerges as a heroine for whom freedom and life take precedence over social standing.
Director Sheree Folkson opts for a lavish portrayal of the period, overtly art-directed by Alison Dominitz with more than a dash of commercial glamour. Folkson and cinematographer Shane Daly eschew the overuse of handheld camerawork that has plagued British period drama in recent years, favouring more cinematic compositions and judicious, impactful use of long zooms, instead. It would be overpraising the unobtrusive cinematography to call it immersive but Folkson's use of surfaces and barriers to isolate and even infantilise the male characters permits not only a peek into the psyche of the voyeur but also a healthy remove from Seymour, who is a protagonist in need of the audience's admiring gaze as much as she is their empathy.
Natalie Dormer's steady rise in film and television was no doubt given its greatest boost by her role as Margery Tyrell in HBO's Game of Thrones, in which she also plays a woman whose agency in the patriarchy hinges largely upon her inherited wealth, political gamesmanship and her sexuality. Here Dormer's range is given a far greater work out than it is ever likely to receive on Game of Thrones (say I, a non-book-reader) and if there were a more perfect casting choice then let she with the finer eyebrows step forward! Like painterly photography of the English countryside or a particularly apt reference to the literature of a particular period, there is a distinct pleasure inherent in seeing actors perform in costume, whose faces suit the aesthetic of so many portraits of the gentry that hang on the walls of stately homes around the country (Joshua Reynolds' portrait of Lady Worsley, recreated in one scene here, hangs on the walls of Harewood House in Yorkshire). Dormer's smooth ivory cheeks and literary use of her eyebrows fit the period like Seymour's multitude of gravity-defying hats but, as with certain sultry textural embellishments in James Keast's costumes, the modern edge of her striking appearance lies in the crackling blue of her eyes. Even more period-specific and grotesque is the face of Shaun Evans as the vile, self-important voyeur, Richard. His head constantly tipped back in a futile effort to look down his nose at everyone that accosts his entitled authority over the world, Richard is the most pathetic peacock in a society characterised by its very superficiality. Evans' use of this mannerism, his sociopathic glare and high-contrast cheekbones render Richard the poster boy of 18th Century moral posturing and hypocrisy.
Indictment of a society that still labels the victims of subjugation "whore" when they dare to control their own lives is the primary concern of Eldridge's screenplay, which cleverly structures the history of Seymour and Richard's marriage through flashbacks, often placed to the benefit of greater tension during the trial. Most alarming for a modern audience would be the passiveness forced upon the central love triangle in court. Neither protagonist, nor antagonist, nor the cowering whelp caught in the middle are permitted to testify in the judgement of their most intimate personal practices. In this respect, Eldridge's choice to intersperse moments from the trio's history together throughout the courtroom sequences not only exposes each character in greater depth as they are publicly dragged through the muck but also delivers breakthroughs and revelations far more credible and brilliantly spun than we are used to seeing in most modern-day courtroom dramas. The emphasis is not on how evidence is acquired but how it is used and this use has far reaching consequences for Seymour once the trial is over.
As a drama divided between the courtroom and the bedroom The Scandalous Lady W is found lacking for depth in its depictions of Seymour falling in love with Richard and his friend and neighbour George. Evidence of the close relationship between the two men is also absent. Though both clearly bond over their lust for Seymour and their boyish punt at the sex life of "moderns", Richard is so slimy, so obnoxious that it is hard to see what could make either Seymour or George fall for the prick. That said, Dormer's ability to play Seymour as coy, even calculating, without detracting from her heroic qualities lends credibility to her marriage if not her romance with Richard. Richard's insistence on their wedding day that a husband's role is to command and a wife's role is to obey underscores Seymour's reluctant participation in the keyhole liaisons that follow. Unfortunately Eldridge's frequent repetition of this point takes the place of more tender scenes missing in action.
None-the-less, Seymour is a true heroine, valuing her own freedom over the obligations thrust upon her and proud enough not to allow separation from her daughter to be used as a card against her. She knows that her campaign to ruin Richard comes at a price greater than her social standing. The victorious final tracking shot of Seymour proudly strutting down the drive of Clandon Park (here standing in for Appulducrombe House) is well earned, though notably in the context of a 21st Century digestion of history. It makes for compelling, satisfying viewing, that has been well tailored to a compact 90 minutes. There is undoubtedly a richer story lying beneath the surface of The Scandalous Lady W, one filmmakers should consider still open for further interpretations on screen. But to demand that Eldridge and Folkson give a more historically accurate, sensitive account of the scandal (as James Walton does in his two-star review for The Telegraph) is to refuse to take their pulpy heroic tale on its own terms as a joyful inversion of the tabloid-gossip judgements that still warp and undermine perceptions of female empowerment to this day.