Monday, June 28, 2010

DVD Review: Jennie: Lady Randolph Churchill

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Jennie: Lady Randolph Churchill, the PBS miniseries first broadcast in 1975, is now available on a two disc DVD set. In seven episodes, the series takes the American born Jennie Jerome from her whirlwind courtship and marriage to the younger son of one of the great British aristocratic families to her death after a fall necessitated an amputation of one of her ankles. While the series includes capable performances by a number of notable English actors—Ronald Pickup as Lord Randolph, Warren Clark as Winston, Jeremy Brett as Count Kinsky, perhaps the love of her life, it is Lee Remick's bravura turn as the effervescent enchanting Jennie that is the life's blood of this production.

Remick takes the character from age nineteen in the first episode to her sixties at the time of her death, and is equally adept at playing the passion of youth and the industry of the middle years as she is the dwindling powers of age. She is no less able to charm in her later years than she was in her early days. One can readily believe that even as a mother of two she was well able to attract the attentions of two men as young as her sons. That younger men would be interested in marriage with a woman of her wit and vigor as embodied by Remick is entirely believable. If Jennie mesmerized those around her, Remick's performance no less mesmerizes the audience.

Lady Randoloph, as she says in one of the later episodes, was a woman who lived her life as she felt it should be lived and not as others thought she should live it. Americans abroad in the middle of the nineteenth century were more often than not seen as unsophisticated barbarians, ill equipped to deal with the cultivated Europeans. One only has to read Henry James and Edith Wharton to get some idea of the attitudes towards Americans in the period. They were naïve parvenus who, if they were good natured and had money, were easily taken advantage of, and if they only had money they could be treated as social climbers ready to trade wealth for position and ripe for the fleecing. Not Jennie, at least not as she is presented in this biodrama. Jennie Jerome had wit, beauty, ambition, and grace. She was nobody's fool. She had a captivating personality, and captivate she did, even though she didn't have the one thing that made most Americans attractive to the Europeans, especially second sons, money.

From the first she is presented as unique. The first view we have of her she is racing on horseback with her father (played by Dan O'Herlihy). She plays the piano, not like an amateur, but with the skill of a professional. She has a mind of her own. Lord Randolph sees her at a ball and it is love at first sight. This despite the fact that he dances poorly, doesn't care for small talk, and is not exactly a matinee idol. He attracts her because his ambition is to be a great man, and she can help him.

The series, written by Julian Mitchell, is episodic. They meet and marry in the first epsode. The next three episodes deal with their marriage and Lord Randolph's political career. In the fifth installment, after Randolph's death, Jennie meets George Cornwallis-West who is the same age as Winston and they marry, despite the objections of his family. The sixth episode deals with their marital problems and eventual divorce. In the final episode she marries again, but dies before a planned trip to join her new husband in Africa. Throughout, the focus on Jennie and her loves is complimented by a broader concern with British politics, social mores, military campaigns and moral behavior.

While the jacket notes that the quality of the picture and sound may be flawed at times because of the age of the programs, these flaws are minimal and are rarely intrusive. The second disc includes a written biography of Lee Remick and a history of Blenheim Palace (the 300 year old seat of the Marlboroughs ) which provides some of the location shots for the program. There are also filmographies of the cast. Over all there is nothing particularly exciting about the extra material. But with over 360 minutes of broadcast material, the DVD set more than likely supplies more than enough excitement for most viewers.

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