It’s not accurate to say that making historical dramas insulates filmmakers from bad reviews, but it’s obvious that critics sometimes tread gingerly when analyzing posh costume pieces laden with unquestionable thematic weight—one never wishes to find oneself in the position of denigrating a piece for mustiness only to later learn that the piece has earned high marks for illuminating some chapter of the past with which the critic was previously unfamiliar. Conversely, occasional overcompensation is a factor, hence the dismaying tendency of some reviewers to dismiss all historical dramas as cheap ploys for accolades. These realities help contextualize Bequest to the Nation, which was made in the UK and released in America as The Nelson Affair. Despite somewhat lurid subject matter, the picture ticks many familiar costume-drama boxes, from high-wattage casting to lofty dialogue, so it’s plainly catnip for the Masterpiece Theater crowd.
That does not mean, however, that it’s entirely a stuffed-shirt sort of a picture. Thanks largely to Glenda Jackson’s gleefully overwrought performance, Bequest to the Nation is entertaining and even a bit crass. Moreover, it’s only peripherally a history lesson, since the focus of the narrative is an unusual love story. In sum, Bequest to the Nation neither wholly ratifies nor wholly undercuts presumptions associated with its genre, so giving this one a fair shake requires close inspection. Revisiting historical episodes previously depicted in the Vivien Leigh/Laurence Olivier picture That Hamilton Woman (1941), Bequest to the Nation explores the relationship between Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson (Peter Finch), England’s greatest naval commander of the Napoleonic era, and his extramarital lover, Lady Hamilton (Jackson). Despite considerable scandal, Lord Nelson abandoned his wife and took up residence with Lady Hamilton, granting her a sort of title by default even though she was common.
At the apex of England’s sea battles with Napoleon’s forces, according to the script by Terence Rattigan (who adapted his own play), Lord Nelson withdrew from military service for an extended idyll with Lady Hamilton because she had grown weary of waiting to hear whether Lord Nelson had died in battle. A duel over Lord Nelson’s soul ensues, with Lady Hamilton arguing for civilian life while a sense of duty to country gnaws at Lord Nelson’s conscience. Woven into the narrative is the question of what status Lord Nelson might be able to offer Lady Hamilton should he die in combat, since she doesn’t have the protection of marriage. As is the norm for most films adapted from plays, Bequest to the Nation is intimate and talky, but effectively so; Finch and costars including Michael Jayston and Anthony Quayle speak beautifully, lending the piece old-fashioned luster, while Jackson achieves something closer to alchemy, blending insouciance, wickedness, and vulnerability into a persuasive characterization.
Although the dialogue tends toward the pretentious (“England has no need of a saint at this point in history, Master Matcham, but they have great need of a hero”), posh cinematography and scoring by, respectively, Gerry Fisher and Michel Legrand, helps the film unfold smoothly. Better still, the piece concludes on a suite of poignant notes rendered vividly by Jackson. Thus it’s wrong to reject Bequest to the Nation out of hand as some safe museum piece, because it’s made of tougher stuff than that, and yet the idiom of the film has the familiar rigidity of entertainment aspiring to literary heft. The ferociousness with which Jackson channels her character’s vulgarity ameliorates the picture’s most off-putting impulses.
Bequest to the Nation: GROOVY