This review is about the TV movie Lady Audley’s Secret from the year 2000 which is based on the novel of the same title by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. It’s another film with Jamie Bamber, playing George Talboys, the first husband (if you can call it like this) of Helen Talboys aka Lady Audley.
I will give a plot summary of the film, so beware of spoilers. I’ll share my interpretation of the film and some other thoughts about it. I won’t make any comparisons between the movie and the novel, though, because I haven’t finished the book yet.
The story is set in the 1860s. A few years ago, George Talboys went to Australia to make a fortune for himself and his little family, a wife and a son. He hadn’t had any contact with his family for all these years, having left them suddenly and ashamed because he couldn’t provide for them properly. In Australia, George met Robert Audley and they became best friends.
After the two friends come back to London George finds out that his wife had died. He is devastated, so his best friend Robert invites him to visit his uncle’s estate and to meet Sir Audley’s new bride, a young woman called Lucy Gray who worked as a governess for the daughter Alicia…
George isn’t really in the meet the new bride, worried about finding his son. But he doesn’t get to meet Sir Audley’s wife, since she left the manor for some business in London. Alicia makes Robert and him sneaking into Lady Audley’s room so that George can see the new portrait that had been made about her. When George sees the portrait, he immediately recognises his wife as the portrayed woman…
Despite Lucy’s attempts to avoid George, he manages to talk to his still-wife and demands her to come back to him. They quarrel, and Lucy pushes George into a well on Sir Audley’s estate when she tries to free herself from his grip. George drowns, and since nobody saw them, Lucy believes that her secret lies with George on the ground of the well…
Robert wonders what happened to his friend, since he can’t find George anywhere. He suspects that Lady Audley has something to do with his disappearance and gains more and more information that supports his suspicions. But Robert is also in conflict with himself, feeling attracted to the young woman who is also his aunt.
When Lucy feels cornered by Robert, she tries to kill him, but Robert survives and forces her to finally confess to his family who she really is and everything else she had done.
Lucy, who’s name actually is Helen, now tells her whole story. She grew up rather poor. When she married George, he was wealthy, but ran out of money after a while. That’s when he left her and their child for Australia, leaving only a note. She dreaded a life in poverty, but the only way to escape from that life was, as a woman, to marry a wealthy man. And Helen was ready to do everything to live a life in comfort. She manages to become the governess of Sir Audley’s daughter and to make Sir Audley fall in love with her, though he realized that she would only marry him because of his wealth and high position.
Because of what Helen did, she is declared insane, and Robert takes her to a mental asylum for wealthy people in France where she would stay forever and be taken care of.
When Robert returns to London, a surprise awaits him: his friend George had survived the fall into the well, and went again to Australia where he also got married. George and his new wife hope that Helen will suffer for the rest of her life.
The film ends with Robert standing on the platform of a train station, years after these events, and notices a woman accompanied by an elderly, apparently rich man, and she resembles Helen a lot, despite her blond hair...
Generally speaking, the film turns from a betrayal and murder plot to some kind of statement against patriarchy and machismo. George, the poor husband, gets mocked by his wife, her fake death and her marriage with another, a richer man under a new identity, while he tries to make money in Australia. Of course he expects Helen, as a good wife, to wait for him patiently, just as Penelope faithfully waited for Odysseus, not knowing when he would return. Quite interesting that the female main character in this story is named after the most beautiful woman in ancient Greece...
Helen, on the other hand, is portrayed as a greedy woman who only uses men for their money. I admit that at first my sympathies lay with George, but that changed somehow when George showed his true face and Helen later told her story. It is patriarchy that forces Helen to marry to have worth, and that at least in those times it was one of the few possible means to have a life in comfort and security for a woman. But it is also patriarchy that forces George to be the one who provides for his family and drives him to such desperate measures as to go to the other end of the world to become rich.
In the end I didn’t condone much of George’s behaviour. He tells Robert that he only had enough money for his own passage to Australia, but not for Helen and the child. He just disappears out of nothing - something that happened again after he fell into the well, only to disappear again in Australia… (Why does this man think running off to Australia will solve his problems? Oh wait, it actually does.) He could at least have written his wife about his whereabouts in Australia and maybe even announce when he would come back. He could have told Robert what happened after he recognized his wife and struggled with her, so that his friend wouldn’t have to play Sherlock Holmes and almost getting himself killed in the course. At the end, George states that he wasn’t completely clear in his mind after the fall, but again, he could have written to Robert from Australia and tell him everything. But no, George had to do it his own way, first because of poverty, then because he was betrayed by his wife.
That doesn’t mean that I condone of Helen’s behaviour, because I don’t, although it is understandable. At first she probably loved George not only because of his money, but then was depressed and felt left alone when he deserted her and had to take matters in her own hand, and that was cheating and playing her beauty cards in the (patriarchy) game. Thus only money mattered for her in a marriage, not feelings. And it seems that George at first loved Helen, but this love turned into some kind of possessiveness, he only wanted to possess a pretty girl, which is emphasized at the end of the film when we see his beautiful second wife. Somehow it looked like George only wanted to have a nice pet.
Of course one can feel sorry for the old Sir Audley. But I feel more sorry for the boy that Helen and George leave without parents. Before Helen married Sir Audley, she first left her son with her own father and later put him into an orphanage, claiming that she didn’t love him enough to be a good mother to him. George doesn’t appear to even think about his own son anymore after he crawled out of the well again, at least the boy isn’t mentioned at the end. For both a child seemed to be a big obstacle to start a new marriage, especially for Helen. (But I wonder, since both are alive… Shouldn’t George and Helen still be married technically?)
Lady Audley’s Secret was from the beginning in my favour because it has a historical setting, and I love these kind of movies. The film is good and keeps up the suspense till the end. My favourite scenes are when George sees the portrait of his supposedly dead wife, and because there is a thunderstorm raging outside, George’s head gets illuminated by some blue lightning that flashes in from the window; and when Robert hints at Helen that he believes that George was murdered by her, Helen more or less ruins her drawing she was working on.
Jamie Bamber’s character has one of the most important roles, but unfortunately a rather short appearance. Although I wasn’t entirely surprised that in the end George had survived his fall into the well.
Here you can see some scenes from the movie - unfortunately without sound: