‘The Making of a Lady’ Is a Fine Portrait of Mystery and Misdirection

[15 April 2014]

By Emily Ruth Verona

There is only one place to find the social acuity of Jane Austen and the inquisitive intrigue of Alfred Hitchcock, and that is in a Frances Hodgson Burnett story.

Burnett is perhaps one of literature’s best kept secrets. Her novels are rarely studied amongst scholars and she is often overshadowed by the likes of Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, and the Bronte sisters.

Based on the 1901 novel The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett (author of A Little Princess), The Making of a Lady certainly maintains Burnett’s signature air of magic and natural curiosity for the wide, wondrous world. This is, of course, aided by the subtle yet striking cinematography and flawless costume design, which function to highlight both the beauties of the era and the starkness of poverty creeping below the luxuries of higher society. The score is somewhat standard for a English historical drama, but fitting enough as to not draw excessive attention to itself. Richard Curson Smith directs the film with careful skill, while Kate Brooke’s adaptation of the classic novel breathes life into a unique genre.

Emily Fox Seaton (Lydia Wilson) is a sensible young woman. When released from her position as an assistant to a wealthy woman, she is surprised when her employer’s nephew, Lord James Walderhurst (Linus Roache) proposes that they marry. He, as a widower, is expected by the family to continue the family line and prefers Emily’s company to that of the woman his family find to be more suitable. Emily, nearing poverty and facing eviction, accepts against her initial instincts. She does, after all, wish to marry for love as her poor parents had.

Nonetheless, Emily and James are not without attraction and soon they begin to grow fond of one another, that is until he must ship off to India. Following his departure, the film begins to clue the audience in on it’s clever little secret: The Making of a Lady is not so much about the “making” of a lady as it is the surviving of one.   

After Walderhurst’s departure, his young cousin Alec (James D’Arcy) and his wife Hester (Hasina Haque) come bearing a letter stating that James wishes for them to look after Emily in his absence. While Emily quickly realizes the letter is in fact a forgery, she is sympathetic to their financial difficulties and welcomes them in anyway as her own family. Alec spent years as an outcast in his family, both for his irresponsible tendencies and for his marriage. Hester is from India, which is a place Burnett frequently returns to in her work, for it is a man from India that looks out for the poor, orphaned Sara Crew in A Little Princess.

It is obvious that Emily is drawn in by the liveliness of Alec and Hester. Their love for one another is something she looks for in her marriage. However, that love does not make Alec and Hester pure of character. In fact, Alec has a tendency to go a bit mad. 

The tonal shift begins slowly and by the time the audience realizes something is not quite right, Emily is already in great danger. Unlike a Hitchcock film however, where the audience is in on the approaching doom, The Making of a Lady utilizes its “delicate” feminine fa├žade for the expert purpose of acute misdirection.

Wilson brings just the right amount of practicality and curiosity to the role of Emily, while D’Arcy easily brings to life Alec’s charms and Norman Bates-like unease. Roache and Haque both perform adequately as spouses, though at times are both somewhat difficult to read.

The Making of a Lady is not without its flaws. At times over the top and occasionally flat in its approach to race, the film still manages to delve into territory rarely breached by the historical love story. It is darker, deeper, more hallucinatory than even the darkest tales of Charlotte Bronte or Elizabeth Gaskell. There is almost a ‘50s thriller feel to the construction of the film’s second half. It works hard to defy expectation and, for the most part, succeeds in doing so. After all, the women of Pride and Prejudice never got to aim a rifle at a man’s heart. 

As a film released for television, it is not surprisingly that the DVD includes no special features of any kind and the menu is relatively bare. English subtitles are provided, but these subtitles begin automatically with the start of the film and if one does not wish to use them then they must be deactivated prior to viewing.

At its core, The Making of a Lady is a noble piece of entertainment, complicated as it is indulgent and thoughtful as it is absurd. It avoids categorizations and stands on its own as a unique mystery of strange character.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/180347-the-making-of-a-lady/