Lady Jane

May 18, 2020

Lady Jane Movie Poster (1986)Among the many disasters bequeathed to England by Henry VIII was the bollixed-up line of royal succession. Although Henry went through wife after wife in the search for a male heir, his weak son Edward was doomed to die at an early age.

That meant the next in line would be Mary, Henry’s Catholic daughter; but the Protestant royal hierarchy saw that possibility coming, and was not about to let it happen (for financial, more than religious, reasons). So they maneuvered the sick Edward into decreeing that his successor should be a teen-age cousin, Jane, whom the regents felt they could easily manipulate.

They couldn’t, and an incredible nine days after Jane’s succession to the throne, she was toppled by Mary’s followers, who imprisoned and eventually executed the unfortunate girl. It is one of the more pathetic chapters in English royal history.

Lady Jane tells this story, and scriptwriter David Edgar improves the love interest in the form of Jane’s husband, Guilford Dudley. Their marriage was arranged and uncomfortable, but the film shows them eventually falling in love and coming to the throne with youthful idealism and sweeping social reforms.

In some sense, their idealism is romanticized in the manner that 1960s youth movies used to show naivete and simplicity, as though Jane and Guilford were precursors of the flower children.

There are some nice moments – Jane looking around in bewilderment for the new monarch after the official hailing of “Queen Jane” – but, although Jane and Guilford are nicely played by Helena Bonham Carter and Cary Elwes, the best-written scenes go to the supporting players, notably John Wood, Patrick Stewart and Michael Horden.

Carter and Elwes were in Seattle recently to promote the movie, and described how history had been altered a bit for film. “The love story is more a legend that grew up after they died,” Carter says of Jane and Guilford; actually, “they didn’t take to each other very much.”

As the British history books tell it, Jane’s reign was “Not really that significant – just this sort of rather shameful, badly executed coup,” Carter says. “But she’s quite exceptional in her own right, being quite precocious in her beliefs.”

Lady Jane is the first film of hot stage director Trevor Nunn (Nicholas Nickleby), and both actors say they enjoyed the experience. Elwes praises Nunn as having “a very perceptive eye, very keen. He absorbs vast amounts of information He’s an actor’s dream, really.”

That was after a difficult series of auditions for these two more-or-less unknown actors. The fact that Elwes was seized while practicing his lines on an empty floor of London’s Barbicon theater didn’t help: “I’d gone to a forbidden area to rehearse my piece, and before I knew it there were six guys surrounding me.”

Carter says, “We got on very well and very immediately” with the high-powered stage actors who appear with them, most of whom had worked with Nunn before. Both Carter and Elwes did able and funny imitations of the ringing tones of Patrick Stewart, the marvelous actor who plays Carter’s father.

The scene of Jane’s execution contains a haunting true detail: Once blindfolded, Jane knelt to put her head on the chopping-block – but her groping hands could not find it. As Carter says, the character is so utterly nonplussed at this moment, you really feel the “completely innocent child, with all the pains and fears,” that this poor queen really was.

First published in The Herald, February 6, 1986

A fun interview. I have a memory of calling the publicist from the concierge desk at the Olympic Hotel in Seattle and saying I was there for Helena Bonham Carter, and the publicist carefully pronounced it Ay-lay-na, which certainly put me in my place, although it is pronounced Helena. It should come as no surprise that young British actors are articulate, funny, and educated. Helena Bonham Carter wore striped leg-warmers, if I am remembering correctly; she was twenty, and had already done A Room with a View. Sorry about referring to her as “Carter” rather than “Bonham Carter”; what did I know. Does anybody remember this movie? Seems like it should have at least a little profile, if only for the period-film fanatics out there.