Friday, 15 February 2013

The Ballad Of Tam Lin (1970)



You can always tell when a film has a troubled production and/or various versions when the film itself goes by many titles. This one is no exception and is known alternatively as Tam Lin, The Ballad of Tam Lin or the more lurid and ridiculous The Devil's Widow.

Tam Lin is in fact an ancient myth originating from Scotland, however the story has similarities with many European folk lore tales. At its basic form it concerns the story of a young virgin, Janet (sometimes known as Margaret, depending on who tells the tale) who plucks a double rose in the forest and is greeted by an elf called Tam Lin. He subsequently takes her 'possession', her virginity, and Janet becomes pregnant though will not give up her elf whom reveals to her that he was once human but captured and tended to by the Queen of the Faeries. Every seven years an elf in her possession is given as a tithe to hell, and one Hallows Eve, Tam is selected as that elf and goes out to ride upon a white horse. Janet tries to rescue him from his fate, and the Queen casts a spell of transformation upon Tam, turning him into all manner of things such as a bear and a burning coal, in an attempt to break Janet's love for Tam. It is only when he reappears as a naked man and Janet's persistence to secure him prevails that the Queen admits defeat and let's them live as man and woman.


Strange bedfellows: Ian McShane and Ava Gardner

Actor turned director Roddy McDowell attempts to update this fable to the early 70s, casting Ava Gardner as the evil Faerie Queen, who assembles a coven of youthful beautiful sprites from London's swinging scene. And McDowell certainly assembles a beautiful cast; Stephanie Beacham as Janet and, in the coven, Joanna Lumley, Jenny Hanley, Madeline Smith, Linda Marlowe and Sinead Cusack, whilst Ian McShane appears as Tam and Bruce Robinson appears as one of the doomed lovestruck 'elves'.  Two male actors that were so beautiful in their prime I sometimes think they could have turned me! I also spotted Julian Barnes, the eternally wooden actor of the previously blogged about films Haunted House Of Horror and Au Pair Girls too. McDowell also quite cannily imbues the piece with the wonderful music of The Pentangle, the folk outfit featuring Bert Jansch, Jacquie McShee, Danny Thompson, John Renbourn and Terry Cox, who were at the peak of their commercial popularity (indeed folk in general was enjoying something of a major revival at the time) having also provided the soundtrack to the successful TV series Take Three Girls. Their version of the trad folk ballad 'Tam Lin' is scored to a tune they had previously used in that very series. In giving them the chance to score the film, it provides a nice nod to the heritage of the original folk tale.


McShane and Stephanie Beacham

McShane's Tam, Gardner's favourite lover, falls for Beacham's Janet when he finds her in the forest and the fable essentially plays out rather faithfully against the modern backdrop. Gardner, who plays her part with the right mix of menace and fading sensuality and glamour (which the former Hollywood screen goddess of course had at that time) is angered at the thought of losing Tam and, on selecting a new coven, drugs Tam and tells him to flee in a white car. If caught, they will kill him. Janet comes to his rescue and a tripping Tam envisions himself as a bear, a writhing snake and lastly on fire, but Janet refuses to let him go. Gardner has to accept defeat and moves on, with a new favourite lover/elf in tow.

Ultimately, it's a beguiling, quixotic and mildly frustrating viewing experience. You genuinely feel the film has a lot going for it, but for either studio interference or an uncertain hand on the directing tiller from McDowell, the film struggles to convey its message successfully. It's true that McDowell was incredibly disappointed with the film and accused the studio of butchering his original artistic vision, but I'm not entirely convinced he was a great director - with some strange unintentionally amusing and downright cheesy choices, such as depicting Tam and Janet's meeting and falling in love as a series of stop frame montages and lingering bewildered close ups. It is a beautiful film with some truly gorgeous shots, but I think here McDowell is especially helped by the excellent cinematographer Billy Williams, the Scottish locations and the utterly beautiful young cast. 


McShane and Beacham beneath The Forth Bridge.
An example of Williams' beautiful cinematography.

At times the film really kicks up a gear and you feel that it is finally going somewhere gripping, heady and interesting - I particularly loved a scene in which Richard Wattis, as Gardner's gay aide, in turn equally menacing and gauche, reveals the fate that will befall McShane's Tam and his own handiwork in previous murders - but these moments quickly dissolve and are few and far between. Don't get me wrong I did enjoy this, but on first viewing it's a bit of a curate's egg. One can't help wonder how better it would have been with a more assured director (McDowell would never helm another film again) or indeed if it will improve for me on a second watch. As it is though, its an intriguing addition to the genre of folk horror.



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