Star-Crossed on the Moors: A Movie Review of “Lorna Doone”
Length: 180 minutes
Maturity: PG (for intense thematic elements)
Cast: Richard Coyle (John Ridd), Amelia Warner (Lorna Doone), Aiden Gillen (Carver Doone), Barbara Flynn (Sarah Ridd), Peter Vaughan (Sir Ensor Doone), Martin Clunes (Capt. Stickles), Honeysuckle Weeks (Annie Ridd), Lizzie Ridd (Joanne Frogatt), James McAvoy (Sgt. Bloxham), Anton Lesser (Counsellor Doone), Michael Kitchen (Judge Jeffreys), Anthony Calf (Tom Fagus), Jack Shepherd (Reuben Huckaback), Rebecca Callard (Ruth Huckaback)
Director: Mike Barker
Personal Rating: 5 Stars
Everyone has a favorite movie that others might consider kind of cheesy. Nevertheless, there’s something so appealing about it that we are willing to overlook the little foibles that gum it up. Lorna Doone has won my heart because it is first and foremost true to itself as an old-fashioned historical adventure and does not even try to be synthetically “hip.” Yes, the acting may not be universally top-notch, and the plot certainly has its quirks, but there is something decent and genuine about the production that continues to make it endearing.
Richard Coyle stars as John Ridd, a strapping young man living with his mother and two sisters in an English farming community during the late 17th century. But his otherwise peaceful existence is marred by a deep burden he carries. When he was but a boy, his father was murdered by the outlaw Doone Clan during a raid on a local village. Ever since that fateful day, he has nurtured a determination to avenge the atrocity, teaching himself to shoot in preparation for the time when he can take the law into his own hands.
But when John accidently falls into a rushing river and is carried by the current into the outskirts of The Doone Valley, he meets a playful young girl who he teaches how to fish with her hands before she helps him escape back home. Years later, when he returns to the valley to hunt out his father’s murderers, he meets the girl again, now a beautiful young woman with whom he is instantly smitten. But when she reveals her name is Lorna Doone, he is disillusioned and uncertain what to do next. Nevertheless, he eventually decides to risk everything to rescue her from her harsh existence and make her his wife.
But Lorna is determined to stay behind and care for her ailing grandfather, Sir Ensor, the patriarch of the Doone Clan. When John is summoned to London to be questioned by Judge Jeffreys about the Doone threat, Lorna must deal with the advances of Carver Doone, the skilled yet brutal young heir to the Doone clan. But as long as Ensor lives, he will not force his beloved granddaughter to be the wife of a man she cannot love, even though such a union would assure the family’s chances of being restored to their ancestral lands.
When Ensor dies, Carver takes full advantage of Lorna’s plight and plans on forcing her to marry him the very next day. But John Ridd is warned by Lorna’s maid, and after a harrowing escape from the Doone Valley, he takes Lorna to stay at his home. At first his family is disapproving of his choice and fear the vengeance of the Doone clan will come down on their heads. But Lorna’s sweetness and courage soon win them over, and they are willing to fight to protect her as a member of the family. Militiamen are sent by Judge Jeffreys to reinforce them, and a battle ensues at the Ridd farm. The Doones are successfully driven back, and Lorna begins to adjust to a peaceful life in the farming community.
But then John’s cousin Tom Fagus uncovers a secret in Lorna’s past, and she is forced to journey to London to accept a large inheritance and become a ward of the king under the title Lady Dougal. Although she vows that she still loves John, he receives no further correspondence from her and begins to despair of ever seeing her again. Meanwhile, Monmouth’s rebellion against King James II is unleashed, dividing families and communities. When Cousin Tom goes off to fight for the rebellion, John must struggle reunite his family and protect his home in the midst of political and personal turmoil. His noble efforts eventually take him to London and a reunion with Lorna, where the worth of their love is put to the test.
It’s so rare for me to find a period piece set in the 1600’s that actually pulls it off reasonably well. Lorna Doone may be a made-for-TV flick, but it has just the right blend of history and fiction, action and human interest, that many epics fail to capture. Filmed on location in the British countryside, the scenery is majestic and haunting. The misty moors and ominous hills and valleys are set off perfectly by the use of fire during Ensor’s funeral and the subsequent battle sequence, contrasting light and darkness beautifully. I also love the romantic scene set against the backdrop of a waterfall.
Jewelry is used as a motif throughout the story, from the golden ring that once belonged to John’s father which is used to pledge his troth to Lorna, to the bejeweled necklace that once belonged to Lorna’s mother and proves her to be a member of the prestigious Dougal Family. This coincides with the importance of costuming in this period piece, which is very well done from the peasants in their homespun clothes to the nobleman in their flamboyant attire to the militiamen in the scarlet tunics. The music score resonates with period instruments and tunes, which is sure to appeal to folk-song lovers like myself. “The Doone Valley Theme” and “The Love Theme” are particularly memorable.
Richard Coyle makes an honest and earthy John Ridd, who I must confess I feel a slight fancy for. I mean, he’s hard-working, level-headed, sincere, courageous, passionate, caring, a devoted friend, and forgiving enemy. He has also has a wonderful accent! I’m not a major fan of the acting style of his leading lady, Amelia Warner, especially when she pretends to cry! But she does look like Lorna to me, and I’ve adapted to her emotional blubbering after a while. At this point, I really couldn’t picture anyone else being right in the part.
The other characters are equally memorable in their diversity. There’s Annie Ridd, John’s strong-willed, trustworthy sister; Lizzie Ridd, his scholarly Tom-boy sister; Tom Fagus, the Robin Hood-like Highwayman who wins Annie’s heart; Sarah Ridd, the formidable yet loving matriarch; Ruben Huckaback, feisty relation with connections in high places; and of course gentle Ruth Huckaback, who puts aside her own unrequited love to save Lorna for John. And who could help but love the bold militiamen like Captain Stickles and Sergeant Bloxham, decked out in their red coats? I mean, they are the end! Also, I can’t help but wonder if there might be a future for Ruth and Stickles, somewhere down the line, just like there seems to be one for Lizzie and Bloxham…
The bad guys are definitely rather cartoonish, but not in a disgusting way as in Prince of Thieves. We can even feel some compassion for the repentant Ensor Doone who gives up his dream of regaining his lands to make Lorna happy because he has truly come to love her in spite of himself. He also asks her forgiveness for the “unknown crime” on his deathbed. The same sympathy goes for Carver, obsessed with having Lorna, who evidently did once believe she could love him. Perhaps he really did love her initially, but in the end we find him allowing himself to drown in a swamp, believing he had murdered Lorna and despairing.
Judge Jeffreys is played to a tee by Michael Kitchen, refined in his brutality and oh-so nonchalant about his judicial duties. Yet even he is shown as having a good spot inside. In essence, no one in Lorna Doone is portrayed as being completely evil. It is a movie extolling the goodness within every person, while not shying away from the wickedness in the world. The plot is sensitive to the position of common people caught in the grips of turbulent times, trying to make ends meet and maintain their identity through their strong sense of family and community. The characters are so warm and real, we instantly feel we can relate to them in their struggles.
There is hardly any swearing in this film at all, except a few mild expletives on the part of the fighting men. Some parts may be a rather intense for younger viewers, especially the sequence where Lorna is shot by Carver and Carver subsequently is enveloped by a swamp. But the violence is never taken overboard. John and Lorna share a love that is chaste, as do the other main characters. Marriage and family are highly respected. So too is the virtue of forgiveness, brought to the fore when John extends his hand to help the sinking Carver Doone, who rejects his aid. Gollum from The Lord of the Rings comes to mind here. Yet it seems that, like Frodo, John’s mercy comes back to bless him, since Lorna survives her wound.
The two historical characters I wish were portrayed in the film itself instead of simply being alluded to were King James II and the Duke of Monmouth, both very colorful and complex individuals who I would have loved to see on screen. But the clash between the two men is really only a backdrop for the story, and was never meant to take center stage. This is hammered home in an interesting speech John makes when a man bursts into church in the middle of Sunday service, ranting that King Charles has been poisoned by the Papists, and they should rise up to fight for Monmouth and make him “a Protestant King for a Protestant Country!”
John counteracts this, and is accused on being a Papist himself. He responds that even if he was, each man’s religion is his own affair, and they should avoid being enmeshed in struggles for the crown since they are common men and have their own lives to live which the king has no part in. It is only when his Cousin Tom runs off to join Monmouth that John becomes embroiled in the bloody aftermath of the failed rebellion, even though no real battle between the two sides is ever shown full-scale. While historically many common people felt quite adamant on points of succession, in the case of Monmouth’s revolt and countless others, it’s interesting to hear John’s admirably unbiased perspective on religion and politics.
As much as I am something of a fan-girl for this film, it must be admitted that there were some parts of the film that were rather hoaky, such as the scream that was uttered by a condemned man immediately after he was beheaded! Another queer thing is that the men of the Doone Clan seem to remain the same age through the course of the movie, even though all the other characters grow older and move on with their lives! It is also questionable why the king’s troops waited so long to wipe out the outlaw Doone Clan, especially after it is revealed that they had murdered a noblewoman and her eldest son years before the story opens. And it is never disclosed why the Doones lost their land and went bad to begin with.
But perhaps it is because of these foibles instead of in spite of them that Lorna Doone proves lovable. For me, it’s a matter of getting used to them, and laughing with them instead of at them. The movie still has an irrepressible charm, free from hideous modernizations and vulgar gratuity. It is a tastefully executed romantic adventure, and for that, it has become something of a tradition for me to watch it during the spring or summer for an annual dose of Anglophilian bliss! It is undoubtedly one my top favorite BBC productions.
By Rosaria Marie
Lorna Doone is available for purchase on DVD at Amazon.com