Based on actual historical events that you'd have memorized in grade school if this country ever got back to basics, "Lady Jane" is about how the machinations of corrupt adults destroy the pure love of two innocents. Lady Jane Grey (Helena Bonham Carter), who knows Protestant dogma the way modern kids know Madonna lyrics, is betrothed to King Edward. This sickly, fish-faced kid rules over a kingdom divided between Protestants and Catholics (his father, Henry VIII, had divorced England from Rome), with the help of the Lord Northumberland (John Wood).
The Lord knows the King is dying. The King knows the King is dying. So the Lord and the King decide that Jane should marry Northumberland's son, Guilford (Cary Elwes), instead, and after a bit of bare-bottom discipline in the British public school tradition, she accedes.
Guilford, a dazed, fat-lipped wastrel with a jaw like a gourd, hardly seems the obvious match for bookish Jane, but they soon charm each other. Inside Guilford the Carouser lurks Guilford the Idealist, who sees the Reformation as a big money-grab and wants to see a chicken in every pot. Jane, for her part, loosens up, lets down her hair, marches around playfully in a nightie and thigh-high boots, and joins hubber in a glass-smashing spree that scandalizes the help.
The plot is for Northumberland to rule son Guilford, for Guilford to rule spouse Jane, and for Jane to rule England. Thanks to Northumberland's fancy footwork in the back rooms, Jane (who is only fifth in line to the throne) does indeed become queen, but the devious Duke never counted on Love, which immediately gums up the works.
Now, if this movie had been made in Hollywood, Jane would have hit the Duke in the head with a leg of mutton, and amid much pitching of meat pies, flailing of tankards and mad dancing of teen-agers in doublets, would have donned a toga, jumped into Guilford's Corvette and run off with him to Club Med. And that might have been a better movie.
Instead, there is much talk about eternity, which, at 2 1/2 hours, makes "Lady Jane" a perfect marriage of form and content. Apparently, director Trevor Nunn still sees cinema as a tainted art form -- images are used simply to illustrate the words, instead of given a life of their own. Overall, the movie is cloddishly composed, with awkward zooms and theatrical blocking. This is one of those movies where characters speak in asides to the audience; Nunn has reinvented the proscenium arch.
And while there may be some charm to watching Britishers in beards and velvet ripping through tongue-twisters like "The dangers that your country could relapse into a pit of popery are still great," to an accompaniment that can only be described as "Masterpiece Theatre" pastorale, I must confess it is lost on me. They wring their hands over whether a strong man can be a good man and whether a living dog is better off than a dead lion and whether Mary Queen of Scots should marry a Spaniard, and what happens? They end up with socialized medicine.
Lady Jane, at area theaters, is rated PG-13 and contains some violence and sexual themes.