Tuesday, February 28, 2012

TV Crush: A Hazard of Hearts

A Hazard of Hearts is a guilty pleasure. It's so wonderfully ludicrous, over-saturated with every possible cliché and chock-full of such horrendous acting and dialogue that it's impossible not to love it. It's so bad, it's good.
This title card makes my heart bleed
A made-for-TV movie, this 1987 adaptation of Barbara Cartland's romance novel of the same name tells the story of Serena Staverley (played by young Helena Bonham-Carter), our plucky heroine, whose father (played by Christopher Plummer), a compulsive gambler, loses everything he owns, including Serena, in a game of cards to the diabolical Lord Harry Wrotham (Edward Fox), who in turn loses Serena to the dangerous and enigmatic Lord Justin Vulcan (Marcus Gilbert). The father promptly commits suicide and Lord Vulcan must marry Serena or at least take responsibility for her. He takes her to his family home, Mandrake, and puts her in the care of his scheming, overbearing and ambitious mother.

The story unfolds in the usual style of Gothic romance - there are hidden passages, mysterious rooms, family secrets, smugglers, highwaymen, duels, poisoning, kidnapping, attempted rape, a brooding hero and dastardly villains.

Hi, I'll be your plucky and cute ingenue for the duration of this film
Helena Bonham-Carter is adorable as the young ingenue. It's hard to believe that this actress, known for her gaunt looks, strange fashion choices and dark quirky roles, used to play sweet, round-cheeked spunky heroines.

I'm rich and handsome, and tortured, oh, so tortured 
Marcus Gilbert as the brooding Lord Justin, Marquess Vulcan is doing his best Darcy impression. Most of his lines are cheesy and the delivery is wooden. But he is rather easy on the eyes.

Even in 1820s the 80s refused to die 
Diana Rigg, best known for her role as Emma Peel of The Avengers, plays Lord Justin's mother. She mostly just goes around chewing the scenery and hitting every wicked step-mother cliché in the book.

I am so evil; I wish I had an evil mustache to twirl in an evil way 
But the lord and master of scenery chewing is Edward Fox, our main villain. He is one of those single-minded, evil characters that can only exist in really bad romance novels. Christopher Plummer as Serena's father is charming, but he disappears from the movie withing the first 10 minutes.

It's not easy having a good time 
The film is set during the late Regency period. If I had to guess, I would say the styles look like they are from the 1820s. The production values aren't very high and some costumes look cheap. The film suffers greatly from the 80s aesthetic and often looks very dated. Some of Lady Vulcan's costumes are not easy on the eyes and the amount of blush on her cheekbones is, frankly, alarming.

Judgmental is the new mauve 
As far as mindless entertainment goes, A Hazard of Hearts is pretty harmless. The plot is sufficiently silly and the main heroine is compelling. There are, however,some dubious moments and elements. First, there are no positive female characters except the heroine. All the other women, except her maid, are shown as Serena's rivals or adversaries. Even the unnamed wife of the highwayman who comes to Serena's rescue is claimed to be a brazen hussy. The men, on the other hand, except the main villain and possibly the smugglers, are universally good. They are all sympathetic towards Serena and try to help her.

The narrative about masculinity and what it means to be a real man is also slightly disturbing. Nicholas, Serena's cousin, is a pleasant and quiet young man, desperately in love with the haughty Lady Isabel Gillingham, who is after Lord Vulcan. She spends most of the film ignoring Nicholas or being mean to him. The rational thing to do would be to avoid her, instead Nicholas seems to follow her around and gets upset when he is overlooked or ignored. Finally, when Isabel delivers yet another taunt, he becomes violent, grabs her and smashes things. He ends this temper tantrum by forcibly kissing her. This is played  up for laughs and is meant to show that Nicholas is very masculine, indeed, and that now that he's been aggressive and abusive, Isabel will see what a catch he is. Mind you, this scene is preceded by an attempted rape of our heroine. It seems to suggest that violence is only bad when it's the villain abusing the heroine. When a good guy is violent, he is just being manly. But of course, one should not expect too much in the way of progressive gender dynamics from a film based on a novel written in 1949.

All in all, if you love historical romances or just want to be entertained for an hour and half, this is a great film to watch.

Watch A Hazard of Hearts on YouTube:

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