Once the toast of two continents, the notorious British actress Lillie Langtry has no doubt lost a good deal of her fame with the passage of time; nonetheless, if any 19th century woman led a life interesting enough to deserve an eleven hour miniseries, it was the “Jersey Lily.” Mistress to a future monarch, muse of some of the period’s most important artists and literary figures, fiercely independent and indifferent to social convention, Langtry was in many ways a precursor of both the modern feminist and the celebrity superstar.
Lillie, the 1978 award nominated British 13-episode TV biographical drama newly reissued in a four DVD set from Acorn Media, captures the many sides of this complex woman with a tour de force performance from the critically acclaimed Francesca Annis. Beginning as a 15 year old tomboy on the Isle of Jersey, Annis takes her through her unhappy marriage to the weak willed Edward Langtry, her successful entry into British high society as what was called a “professional beauty,” her liaison with the Prince of Wales as well as her many other affairs, her stage career in England and America, to her retirement in France and her death in 1929. It is an incandescent performance. Annis, who had previously portrayed Langtry in two episodes of the 1975 miniseries Edward the Seventh, is no less charismatic than her subject, and it is her performance that provides both the glue and glory of the sprawling drama.
Although one might complain that the end of Langtry’s life, the period after WWI, doesn’t get quite the attention that earlier periods with their escapades and scandals are given, it should be remembered that this is not a documentary and scandals make for exciting drama. Moreover, the series does give an adequate picture of what her later years with a younger second husband who spent his days in pursuit of other women were like. We see her daughter’s estrangement from her mother after her own marriage, and their eventual if less than perfect reconciliation. It also delves into her own involvement with a younger man, but essentially, surrounded by pictures of all those friends and lovers long gone, her last years are those of a woman whose life is in the past. It isn’t presented as a Sunset Boulevard moment.
The cast includes Dennis Lill as the suave, philandering Prince of Wales and Anton Rodgers as the ineffectual drunken Edward Langtry. Peter Egan turns in a mannered performance as the sharp tongued Oscar Wilde. He delivers characteristic Wilde witticisms with panache, but his despair over his later trials is less convincing. The portrayals of most of the Americans in the series are more often than not—Don Fellows as the painter James M. Whistler–over the top, or demeaning–Michael Shannon as the millionaire Freddie Gebhard–almost as though the Brits were still fighting the Revolution. Still, in what seems like a cast of thousands, the acting on the whole is uniformly effective.
A word about costumes: although Langtry’s first entrance unto the social scene was marked by what was to become her signature black gown made necessary by her husband’s money problems, it didn’t take long before that gown gave way to more glamorous attire. Eventually, as she was more and more the object of celebration, she was to become a style setter, and the costumes in the series are gorgeous reminders of why that was so. There are very few who do costume drama like the British, and Lillie is an example of costume drama at its best.
The DVD set is a barebones affair. There is no bonus material, except for a short two page essay on the cultural impact of Langtry talking about things like the claim that she was the inspiration for the character of Irene Adler in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and her celebration by Pete Townshend in The Who’s “Pictures of Lily.” There are occasional flaws in the images, but overall the picture quality is satisfactory given its age.
Still, for the privilege of making Lillie’s acquaintance, indeed the privilege of making Francesca Annis’s acquaintance, barebones is more than enough.