DVD Review: Painted Lady (1997)

Brushes its Way From
Masterpiece Theatre
On 2/24/09

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Long before she was known as "The Queen"-- twice over (in The Queen and Elizabeth I) and aside from her recurring role in the critically lauded British import series Prime Suspect-- the blunt, attractive, and risk-taking Helen Mirren never shied away from daring work that showcased the inherently seductive sway she holds over men (a la The Thief, the Cook, His Wife, & Her Lover).

So while those who only know her as her royal highness may have a tough time seeing Mirren play a longer haired, sexy, nose-pierced, former junkie and Woodstock era rock sta--, she manages to disappear right into the role in Brideshead Revisited and Becoming Jane director Julian Jarrold's Masterpiece Theatre miniseries Painted Lady.

Upon first glance, it seems that Maggie Sheridan (Mirren) never moved past the free love and laid back lifestyle of her heyday as she works on new material with a much younger boy toy named Aiden (Karl Geary) in a rented guest house on a sprawling Irish country estate. However, when she hears a gunshot in the distance, Maggie rushes off to the main house to find the owner and father figure, Sir Charles Stafford murdered in what appears to be an art robbery gone terribly wrong as one of his paintings has been cut from the frame and removed.

Although she tells Detective Sergeant Fagan (Barry Barnes), "I make music, but I don't make a living," when he returns the next day for further inquiry, the audience has already ascertained that Maggie has a number of other skills hidden beneath her hippie exterior as she coolly took Charles Stafford's gun for her own and interrogated her boyfriend Aiden who fled on his motorcycle when the crime occurred.

Withholding details from the police and vowing to find out what really happened-- as a convict, Maggie Sheridan realizes she'd be unable to leave Ireland but our savvy heroine has kept a duplicate passport for years under her birth name which she uses to escape into London to visit her half-sister Susie (Lesley Manville).

An art expert who penned a book about Artemesia Gentileschi, Susie and her boyfriend Oliver (Michael Maloney as one of many men harboring a crush on Maggie) help Mirren's rock star pose as a wealthy and connected art dealer upon learning that not only was Stafford's missing painting possibly a Gentileschi but that the dangerous community of the seedy art underworld could somehow be involved.

Upon the realization that Stafford had recently taken out a large insurance policy on the paintings for the exact amount his troubled, off and on drug addicted son Sebastian (Iain Glen) owed to a deadly criminal, Maggie realizes she may be in slightly over her head as she and Sebastian find their lives at risk all in the name of art and money.

What starts as a straightforward robbery and homicide quickly gives way to a riveting mystery that-- true to form-- leads you down a number of possible paths involving a few shady characters before it throws you in another direction altogether from Prime Suspect 2 and veteran television screenwriter Allan Cubitt.

And although it takes a rather dark turn towards the end of the first part of the two episode miniseries--it nearly begs you to watch it as a marathon when one character's life hangs in the balance in a twisted scene that will have viewers looking away. Despite a few shocks here and there, it's an intelligent and high caliber mystery featuring a tremendous musical soundtrack (of what we assume are Maggie Sheridan's "songs") that stands out in my humble opinion as not only director Jarrold's most satisfying work thus far but a must-see for Mirren's fans who are only accustomed to her more recent royal work.

Although unrated, it's most likely the equivalent of a strong "PG-13" or light "R" due to some rather intense moments and sexual situations and Painted Lady-- which will hit shelves this coming Tuesday-- has been given an impressive digital transfer to DVD by Acorn Media and Granada International.

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An acclaimed Masterpiece Theatre miniseries (which was shown both in 1998 and 2000 on PBS) that's been preserved in its 4:3 full screen aspect ratio with stereo surround and subtitles for the deaf or hearing impaired (or for fans who want to make sure they catch every word of the accented dialogue), Painted Lady which winds up at just around two hundred minutes on one beautifully packaged DVD also boasts a biography of the talented and diverse Mirren as well.

Helen Mirren