I somehow managed to miss James Hawes’ biopic of Marie Lloyd when it was first shown on TV, but caught it on DVD and was impressed. Unfortunately I’ve again left it a little too long before writing about the movie, but thought I’d put down a few thoughts anyway before my memories fade too much.
The lively, colourful, slightly sleazy London music hall atmosphere is beautifully re-created – and, though the “making of” featurette on the DVD reveals that sometimes the applauding crowds consisted of just half a dozen people filmed from the right angle, I never would have guessed this from watching the film. Something I especially liked is that it isn’t just a straight biopic, but a musical in its own right with shades of Cabaret – with ‘The Showman’, played by Shaun Parkes, acting as MC in the music hall and also appearing within and between scenes to offer a poignant musical commentary on Marie’s life, and heighten the melodrama of various twists in the plot.
Before seeing this film, I didn’t know much about the great music hall singer, who lived from 1870 to 1922, beyond her name, her vaguely bawdy reputation and one or two of her songs. However, this film brings her to life, and shows that there is much more to star Jessie Wallace than her time starring in top-rating British soap EastEnders suggested.
Wallace possibly doesn’t have the greatest voice ever, but she does have a vivid, humorous presence and it’s very believable that she could hold the audience in the palm of her hand. She convincingly ages from her teens to her 50s, and performs just about all Marie’s most famous songs along the way, from The Boy I Love Is Up in the Gallery to I’m One of the Ruins That Cromwell Knocked About a Bit – the song Lloyd was performing when she collapsed on stage and practically died as she had lived, in front of an audience. My favourite out of the songs she performs, though, is probably My Old Man Said Follow the Van.
As so often with this type of biopic, the film shows how, as Marie’s career went from one success to the next, her personal life was increasingly turbulent. Richard Armitage plays her first husband, Percy Courtenay, who initially seems charming but turns out to be an unfaithful, drunken gambler. He gives a fine performance which is very different from other parts I’ve seen him play, and worlds away from Monet in The Impressionists, the mini-series of his I’ve watched most recently. In other parts I’ve seen Armitage play, he makes his characters sympathetic even when they are doing all the wrong things. Here he doesn’t do this, except for the occasional poignant moment, and manages to make Courtenay downright repellent.
Matthew Marsh is a far more appealing character as Marie’s older, kindly second husband, Alec Hurley, who bores her by offering her tea and country walks instead of champagne and late nights. I felt quite sorry for him when watching it all unravel (this type of character appeals to me personally a lot more than Courtenay!) , but could see that this match was just as disastrous as her first, in a different way. And her third marriage, to much younger jockey Bernard (Tom Payne), who just seemed to want her money, was another failure. I don’t know how true any of this is to Marie’s life, but all the relationships seem convincing within the film.
Something I found quite refreshing about the film was that, although it does show all the singer’s personal problems and her self-destructive streak, it doesn’t have the sort of moralising flavour you sometimes get in biopics. James Hawes is also director of the forthcoming BBC biopic Enid, starring Helena Bonham Carter as author Enid Blyton, and, after seeing this film, I’m looking forward to that one more than ever.
The picture of Richard Armitage in this posting is gratefully taken from the Richard Armitage Central Gallery.