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.