"Lillie" is a half-forgotten classic from the golden age of the British television miniseries that starred Francesca Annis as Lillie Langtry, a turn of the 20th century society beauty - professional beauty, as they called them, although they weren't supposed to be professional at all. The DVD has been remastered from its TV incarnation, however, as the series is rather old, there are a few odd moments that resisted clarification. But the production, by Granada for London Weekend Television, is at least as sumptuous as any treatment of the material by the British Broadcasting Corporation might have been. The costumes and carriages are accurate; filming was done on location; and the thirteen episode entertainment utilizes a cast of over 1,000, including live musicians at the numerous balls. The drama traces the rise of the beauteous Jersey clergyman's daughter, through London society - where she caught a number of royal eyes--to become one of the first famous, independent - and infamous - women of the twentieth century. The gorgeous Annis, who was a British TV star from her teenage years, carries the production in a BAFTA-winning performance, appearing in most scenes, from youth to old age. She may be best remembered from the British TV series Reckless [DVD]  and Cranford Collection Box Set [DVD], but she's actually played Langtry twice, as well as playing Madame Bovary, and Jackie Kennedy Onassis, for British TV. She is ably assisted here by Peter Egan as Oscar Wilde; Anton Rodgers as her first husband, Edward Langtry; and Denis Lill, playing the Prince of Wales, to briefly sit the English throne as Edward VII. Each of these men show up on several episodes, must age along with the star, and have dramatic character arcs. Jennie Linden also does well as Langtry's close friend, Mrs. Patsy Cornwallis-West. Lillie was first taken up by London society for her extraordinary beauty, and was painted by James Whistler and John Everett Millais, among others. She was lionized by Wilde, Walt Whitman, George Bernard Shaw, and Judge Roy Bean of Texas, who, as viewers who remember an old Paul Newman movie, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean - Paul Newman [DVD], will know, named his town "Langtry," after her. The young beauty scandalized London society by a string of affairs with royals: Prince Edward, who was called Bertie - while she always remained on good terms with his wife Alexandra -- and Prince Louis of Battenberg, among others; and turned down Leopold of Belgium and Price Rudolf of Austria (who was, famously, later to kill himself and his mistress at Mayerling). She was also collecting spectacular jewels all the way. But she still needed more money. So she was the first `professional beauty' to pose for paid celebrity endorsements. And she went into business for herself, buying numerous properties; meanwhile she had to pay the alcoholic Langtry, who refused to give her a divorce, to keep his distance. She went on the stage, becoming an immensely popular actress, if not one of the most prestigious, and toured America many times. She had her own racing stable. Lillie bore one daughter, illegitimately, to Prince Louis of Battenberg. He unfortunately was a cousin of the Royal Family, and a career naval officer. The Prince of Wales did not think it advisable to let him marry Lillie; so she was forced to have her daughter in secret, and misrepresent the girl to herself, and the disapproving world. Whether because of resentment at this treatment, or simply as a result of the pendulum of character's swinging from one generation to the next, the daughter, Jeanne Marie, appears to have grown up an extremely conventional woman. She refused to see her mother for nigh on twenty years; nor would she let the woman know her grandchildren. There can be no doubt that Jeanne Marie caused her mother great pain: as Shakespeare says in "King Lear," "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child." Meanwhile, Price Louis, the girl's father, was to rise very high indeed in the British Navy, to Admiralty rank. But anti-German prejudice in World War I forced him to resign. However, his youngest son by the German princess whom he married would also have a highly-successful naval career. Lord Louis Mountbatten would be given many titles and honors; he was a friend of the royal family's, as well as a relation. He was also an uncle to Prince Philip, the current-day consort of Queen Elizabeth II, and was instrumental in making that marriage. He was an outstanding figure; so much so, unhappily, that he was assassinated by the Irish Republican Army at the age of 79. The series is quite engrossing, a seductive telling of the life of a famed seductress. A series of thirteen episodes requires more of a commitment than perhaps we are accustomed to make today (some of us may wonder how we ever did it back then); but its length allows the viewer to immerse him- or herself in an immensely pleasurable experience.
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