Aging spinster Mickey is a fickle woman. Determined to escape her biological reality, she surrounds herself with the company of beautiful young people- using her immense wealth, and possibly a little bit of witchy wonder, to keep them there by her side. Catch her on a good day she will pander to your every dream; dare defy the mistress of the manor and there will be trouble. But then who could resist living a life of luxury and decadence if it means paying lip service to the crone’s ego every once and a while? Tom does more than this. He truly believes he loves Mickey. As her favourite pet he gets more than his fair share of attention. He is granted access to the inner sanctum, the mistresses’ bed, but not to what he really wants, which is her heart. Then one day the young Vicar’s daughter Jane arrives to deliver a puppy and the spell is broken for Tom. Suddenly he sees what he has been looking for in the eyes of someone his own age. Now he knows what he wants, he just has to convince Mickey to let him leave. A simple task maybe? Well you see, no one ever gets to leave Mickey, well not alive anyway.
Interestingly this film is the one and only directorial credit for well-known actor Roddy McDowall. It’s a complete mystery why he didn’t go on to direct more, because for a debut feature there is some vision here; especially in some of the compositions involving the ensemble cast in and around the central manor house; the mood, the atmosphere, and the slow burn pace which demonstrates thoughtfulness in dealing with the material.
For the cast we have Ava Gardner in the lead role of Michaela Cazaret- or simply Mickey- the type of woman people never say no to. This was a late role for the former A-lister, and one that she gives her all to. Even though the actress was in the later stages of her career she still appears every bit the glamourous star too. Her appearance is a real highlight for the piece, and it is Gardner’s strong performance that keeps the tone with two feet firmly on the ground. There is much potential for over the top melodrama in the plotline, thankfully the nuanced performance from the leading lady steers everything in the right direction.
Ian McShane- a young but looking the same as he usually does, Ian McShane- is left to fill the boots of love interest Tom. He does so adequately, although he lacks the charisma of his co-star Gardner and it is difficult to fathom exactly what she sees in him at times. Stephanie Beacham takes the role of the somewhat prim and proper Vicar’s daughter Jane. Her ponytailed hair and wide eyed performance are a far cry away from her usual assertive and strong characters. But the actress rises to the challenge nevertheless.
Less can be said for Madeline Smith or Joanna Lumley who reside among the bulk of the ‘beautiful people’ gathered at Mickey’s home. Lumley pops up with the odd line in her unmistakeable plum laced drawl. Smith also has little to do either, and on that note the two are wholly wasted, even if they look right for their consecutive parts.
Cyril Cusack- father of actresses Sinead and Niamh- takes the role of Jane’s father, the Vicar. Again he doesn’t have a large scope for his role, but puts in a solid turn anyway. Cyril’s daughter Sinead also pops up in the wider cast. As does 70’s Brit star Jenny Hanley.
As far as British thrillers go- although this is a British/American co-production (through A.I.P) strictly speaking- Tam -Lin aka The Ballad of Tam-Lin, The Devil’s Widow or The Devil’s Woman is none too shabby with regards to the production values involved. The film boasts the look and feel of something much bigger than it is. Oscar winning cinematographer Billy Williams (Ghandi (1982), On Golden Pond (1981), Women in Love (1969)) has a lot to do with establishing such a strong ambience and at times, striking composition.
Tam- Lin, as well as being relatively obscure, is one of those films that seems impossible to peg down to an exact sub-genre. If you had to mark out its boundaries occult thriller would most likely be the best fit; I should say it is occult-flavoured, because the fact is nothing is exactly clear. There is an ambiguity there which will either enthral you, or drive you insane- either way this isn’t your straight up common garden British thriller. The film takes an incredibly long time to build to any sort of conclusion, when it does I would argue it is worth the pay off. But if you are looking for definitive answers, you will not find them. Instead Tam- Lin is very much the mood piece that will linger in the corners of your mind. Confusing, beguiling, thought-provoking, and highly sophisticated, Tam- Lin sucks you in and leaves you dangling. Whether you enjoy that completely depends on your patience threshold.
Part of the confusion comes from the initial set-up; a narrator relays the folklore legend of Tam Lin who is rescued by his true love from the clutches of the Queen of the Fairies. It is insinuated- in a very, very subtle way- that Mickey, our leading lady, has some relation to this evil queen as the story starts to weave its wicked web. There is also no escaping the relationship between the name Tam- Lin and Ian McShane’s character Tom. While if you look into the legend the plot does follow a very similar structure- although there are different versions, they all follow the same path. The idea of a fantasy world is downplayed here however, in favour of a more realistic foundation. Viewers are left to question whether the character of Mickey has supernatural powers, and whether she has managed to defy the aging process through the use of the dark arts. Do her cohorts stay there of their own accord, or is it the shiny baubles she offers them that make them hang around? Further still, is it something else? Something magical? One thing is for sure when Mickey wants to turn she gives a nasty bite, making her quite the bunny boiler supreme- if she wants to be of course. We also have an essence of the cult leader, the powerful figure who is able to coerce through bribery, and control, making the psychological implications of the plot fascinating on that level. As well as the sub-text surrounding the fear of aging and death, and the limits people will go to escape that. Even though everything tip-toes along- in a fairly predictable direction- the feeling of uneasy dread that builds, is what gets you- the confusion working to keep you locked into the narrative. Again though, this is the type of film you need to be in the right frame of mind for, one you need to absorb. If you are looking for action, there is very little. What there is, is worth waiting for. Also be advised, even though this is an early seventies thriller with a scent of the horrific, it also lacks the nudity and/or a blood factor of its associated peers.
What makes the film is a number of facets, including the strong script which ensures the proceedings never veer into that well known arena of retro British camp. The performances support this tone; Gardner, especially in the leading role as Mickey puts in a blinding performance- vain, nasty, sadistic on some level, that’s one hell of the woman you don’t want to get on the wrong side of. But on the other hand she also allows softer, vulnerable aspects of the character shine through, and becomes almost childlike during certain moments. We also have a beautiful cinematography to consider. Tam- Lin isn’t a film that relies on opulent period sets, or an attempt to bury its message in special effects. It’s told quite simply- bar one scene with a ropey fire effect. There are moments of the psychedelic that pop up during the closing act that add in a nice tone of nightmarish macabre. Other than that the film has a fresh, slick, retro-fashion cool look which infuses the organic folky feel of lush countryside settings to make something quite strange in its atmosphere. The final piece that brings it together is the spectacular score by British folk/jazz outfit Pentangle- credited as The Pentangle here. The music bounces around between dreamy New Wave of British folk ballads and some rousing sleaze tinged jazz. It’s really something, and not quite like anything else from its time or place.
Verdict: One for the patient. What Tam- Lin lacks on shocks it makes up for in tone and atmosphere. Worth seeking out for whensomething with a thoughtful edge and chilling slow burn is called for.