The Scandalous Lady W (2015) is a one-off TV movie that tells the story of Seymour Dorothy Fleming, Lady Worsley (1758-1818), whose marriage (to a real peach) crumbled in the 1780s. It stars Natalie Dormer (from Game of Thrones and The Tudors) as the titular character and is framed as a series of flashbacks during a court case for “criminal conversation” (the hilarious historical term used in England for extramarital affairs). It aired in the UK a few months ago, and I’m sure will air in the US sometime in the coming year – we’ll keep you posted when we find out the release date.
In general, I liked the film. I suspect that the budget wasn’t huge, just based on the number of actors and costume/location repeats, but the quality was high. In general, it’s Natalie Dormer who carries the film, and she plays her role with a nice mix of sensitivity, girl power, naïveté, and strength depending on the scene. I did get a little irritated with her side-mouth thing, but then I’m petty like that.
I didn’t love the framing of the story — instead of a linear timeline, the film focuses on Seymour (yes, that’s her first name!) leaving her husband with her lover, Captain Bisset, and the subsequent trial, with numerous flashbacks to fill in the gaps. I can see why they did it — the scandal (to modern viewers) comes from what pre-dated the trial, not the trial itself. That being said, it made things feel somewhat disjointed at times.
I also felt like the actor playing Captain Bisset either wanted his character to seem like something of a block of wood or he wasn’t given enough in the script to be able to communicate his emotions, because it was hard to understand where he was coming from. Also, he looks like Frodo and that made it hard for me to get into him.
And before you start clutching your pearls, while the story certainly is scandalous (and puts the Duke of Devonshire to shame), it’s actually pretty sad. There is a decent amount of shagging, but it’s not happy shagging, and the shaggers are generally pretty clothed. And I actually quite appreciated that. If this were the 1960s (or hey, even the 1990s), this film would be played as a “Period Romp!” with a Moll Flanders-type giggle. Instead, the film does a great job showing how Seymour might have really felt about the situations she found herself in.
Costumes in The Scandalous Lady W
The costumes were designed by James Keast (Aristocrats, The Ruby in the Smoke, The Shadow in the North, Desperate Romantics, Mr. Selfridge), and while there are some recycled costumes and a lot of re-wearing, he and his team did a good job with what I assume were limited resources. I pretty much liked all of the outfits — they were shiny, they were appropriate to the era (mostly 1781-ish), and they did a good job with adequate amounts of underwear and accessories (something a lot of productions are missing these days — I’m looking at you, Poldark).
Lady Worsley’s Costumes
There are a couple of major (as in lots of screen time) costumes, and a few smaller ones. Probably the most important is this military-inspired riding habit. Not only is it GORGEOUS, beautifully made, and impeccable down to the details, I sincerely appreciate the fact that they made a film about a historical figure and actually went out of their way to exactly reproduce the most famous painting of her. How many times do people make biopics and not bother to actually LOOK at the real historical person? I just felt like this honored the fact that there really was a woman who lived a life. Oh, and it’s fucking gorgeous.
The other Really Big costume is this striped redingote (a style that is a menswear-inspired lady’s dress that was very popular in the 1770s-80s). This outfit is recycled — it was originally made for Garrow’s Law, and we last saw it in Poldark (where I incorrectly thought it was a jacket). It doesn’t bother me, though — I’m happy to see recycled costumes when they’re as gorgeous (and period-appropriate) as this one is. I LOVE the stripes (I mean, come on, STRIPES), and that folded collar is fabulous (I haven’t seen it in period examples, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist). That cut-in-one piece (i.e., no waist seam) back/side back is totally accurate and gorgeous. And they created a great skirt silhouette (again, I’m looking at you, Poldark). I love the hat with the subtle green plumes and ribbons, too.
The third Lots-O-Screen Time is this yellow jacket, which is lovely and has great trim. I love the buttons up the front, too. She wears it with various skirts, usually pink — either striped (left and center) or patterned (right). The only hitch is that she’s shown in it in a scene that implies that she’s coming from her wedding, which was in 1775, but she’s still wearing it in 1781. Oh well, it’s a quick scene, and I don’t begrudge them (presumed) budgetary limitations.
She wears this yellow jacket for a LOT of evening scenes, and it was hard to tell what she was wearing it with. I did spot this one wearing, where it was paired with a green petticoat:
These next few costumes are seen multiple times, but not as much as the above three. This green dress is lovely — I love the color, and the yellow-edged ruched trim is a stunner. She sometimes wears it with a peach petticoat, other times with the same floral pink petticoat worn with the yellow dress. Again, the only problem is the timeline — the first two images are from the scene where she first meets Lord Worsley, which is 1775 or earlier … but she’s still wearing it after she has her second child, in 1781.
This red taffeta dress is her “Fuck you, soon-to-be-ex-husband” dress. I’m not 100% convinced by the capelet (it feels Edwardian), but it’s a good option for making the ensemble work for cold weather. And NICE HAT.
These next costumes are only on screen briefly. First she has her “Fuck you, I’m going to spend all your money, douchebag husband” yellow dress. Here’s where I pause and do the NO BACK-LACING DRESSES happy dance!
Sadly we only see this blue redingote (?) from the chest up. I love the peach color on the collar turn-backs. It’s interesting that it’s got the same collar style as the striped dress above — makes me wonder if it’s another recycled costume? Or were they inspired to emulate the striped dress? I wish we could see more.
This blue and gold striped number is another re-wear — originally from The Duchess (thanks Recycled Movie Costumes!) — and is a reproduction of a real 18th-century jacket held at the Kyoto Costume Institute.
Captain Bisset’s Costumes
All of the male characters were dressed nicely for the period with embroidered waistcoats, nicely cut-away coats, etc. And as mentioned above, both Captain Bisset and Lord Worlsey wear their military regiment ensembles.
Lord Worsley’s Costumes
Lordy Worsley is dressed very similarly, although his colors get darker as the court case gets underway.
Everyone Else’s Costumes in The Scandalous Lady W
For your supporting cast, you’ve got the Viscount Deerhurst. He’s mostly in this pink brocade-y number:
But then suddenly turns up in this black corduroy suit. I don’t know if corduroy would really be an option for outerwear, or maybe this is just a “ribbed fabric,” but WHO CARES:
These two maids work at the hotel that Seymour and Bisset stay at. They’re in matching pink jackets and navy blue quilted skirts, which seems awfully uniform, but hey, maybe that was a thing. I like that they bothered to give them fashionably high caps — so often productions ignore the fact that the lower orders followed fashion trends too.
And overall the extras were nicely dressed in 1781-appropriate gear!
Hair: The Good and Bad in The Scandalous Lady W
You know I gotta talk about the hair, especially when it’s 18th-century hair (my specialty).
Overall, I give Seymour’s hair a solid B. I loved the overall shape, although the fact that it always listed to one side annoyed me (I’ve never seen that in the period). I liked that they worked her own hair into her wig/hairpieces, a period-accurate approach to ladies’ hair-styling in this era, and that you could tell they were doing so.
I liked that they bothered to backdate Seymour’s hair in the flashback scenes. It’s not vastly different, but it is higher and narrower, and that makes it work better for 1775ish.
What I didn’t like was that the back of her 1781ish hair was SUPER messy and matted. Okay, I’ll give them a pass on not getting the details on the back of the hair right — it’s something that very films have done right (La Revolution Francaise is one of the few that has). Given that, the shape is fine, but does it need to look like it’s been slept on for a week?
And finally, the trope of “boudoir” hair. The second Seymour started to get shaggy, her hair started falling down all over the place. I can deal — hair gets messy! Although they frequently had bits of hair hanging down on one side of her face, and after a while I just wanted to grab a comb and some Aquanet.
Now, let’s look at the boys. Lord Worsley’s hair was acceptable in that it followed a period-accurate cut (short on top and sides, long from the crown of the head down), although he’d be AWFULLY fashion-forward to not have side rolls (buckles) in 1775.
But Captain Bisset went FULL FRODO MULLET. IT WAS NOT GOOD. Hairstylists seem to do this with curly-haired guys in particular — cut their hair short all over and then give a long tail right at the nape of the neck. But the queue (the long hair in back) should REALLY start at the crown of the head or just below for the 1780s-90s. This looks like something out of The Lost Boys.
In terms of supporting cast and extras…
I liked that the maid’s hair had some height on top. See above re: lower orders following fashion trends!
Mr. Farrar was Lord Worsley’s lawyer and henchman. He looked dapper but ominous most of the time:
But when he showed up in court in his white wig, HELLO.
Most of the minor characters and extras had nice wigs:
But Captain Bisset’s lawyer got a seriously shitty wig. I’m not sure if they were trying to communicate that he’d had to hire a cheap lawyer, or if they just ran out of wigs and found this on the floor of the costume shop.
And side note, this guy should have been a poster child for late 18th-century men as to why they might not want to give up wig wearing quite yet.
Have you seen The Scandalous Lady W or are you waiting for it to arrive on American shores?