Adapted from the book of the same name, Mike Fraser’s The Honourable Rebel (2015) draws on enough material to make it worthy of a 95 minute biopic. The eventful life and times of the right honourable Elizabeth Montagu – whose family home, Beaulieu Palace House, will be known to many a car enthusiast – should make for enthralling viewing. A highly intelligent, multi-lingual and frequently controversial aristocrat, she engaged in same-sex and heterosexual relationships, and acted as a spy during World War II.
She also shunned debutante balls to train as a mechanic, appeared on the West End stage, and worked on the crew of The Third Man, amongst many other exploits. It is a pity, then, that The Honourable Rebel runs in completely the opposite direction to its unruly, freewheeling and defiant subject. A listless, drab depiction of a remarkable woman, it flits between narration by Diana Rigg as Montagu, extended dramatized sequences and brief snippets of conversation with remaining friends and family members.
What should have been a mile-a-minute tapestry of a life less ordinary is as dull as dishwater. Dropped right in at the deep end, it begins in 1938 with the abhorrent details of Kristallnacht. One of many outraged by events the liberal, altruistic Montagu (embodied in adult life by Dorothy Myer- Bennett) rolls up both proverbial sleeves to do her bit for the war effort, biting off perhaps more than she can chew and frequently finding herself in frightful spots of bother. Myer-Bennett does her utmost to imbue Montagu with a pioneering determination while maintaining her ‘jolly hockey sticks’ upper class entitlement but unfortunately does not yet have the acting experience to really engage an audience. Her performance is sadly representative of the film’s overall blandness. Sometimes a low-budget plucky contender can surprise, but Fraser’s first directorial work really drags, losing what limited steam it generates at the off, which is surprising given his extensive editorial background.
As much warmth and composure as Rigg’s narration lends proceedings, the acting from all else involved is fairly woeful, detracting from the natural drama of life and death circumstances. None of those whom Montagu encounters leave a lasting impression even when escaping the German advance into France, taking shelter in Cannes, or fleeing across the border to Switzerland. The washed-out colour palette employed to represent the harshness of hard times only further underlines just how dull The Honourable Rebel becomes. Towards the merciful end of the film, Rigg reflects upon just what a very tedious affair filmmaking was for her. The sad irony of this statement could not more aptly describe the disappointing account of the trials and tribulations of “Liza” Montagu who – we are left to assume – was anything but boring.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens