Though slow-moving in spots, this biopic about the 'mother of modern nursing' stays close enough to the facts to be worthwhile.

James Plath's picture

She should be a natural, but Florence Nightingale has been a tough subject for a biopic. That's because it's hard to film the actions of a saintly woman without having it come across as just a little schmaltzy. And there are moments in this 1985 TV movie that pile on the cheese. There are also moments when you look at Jaclyn Smith and think "Charlie's Angels" instead of Florence Nightingale, the British aristocrat who became so famous that only Queen Victoria rose above her.

But the production values are strong in this big-budget TV epic--and I call it that because it runs a whopping 140 minutes--and there are so many interesting facets of Nightingale's life that it's easy to get swept up in the narrative flow.

Though "Florence Nightingale" isn't a whitewash of the Lady with the Lamp--the woman who established nursing as a legitimate profession in England and whose work in the Crimean War revolutionized the way that wounded soldiers were cared for--she's made out to be a virgin as well as a saint, and that just wasn't the case. She was involved with more men outside of marriage than this movie lets on.

In fairness, though, that's not the point of the film. It's to dramatize the life of a woman who defied her parents and fought antiquated attitudes about women and their place in society. It's to show how a single woman took on both the political juggernaut that worked against positive change and the British military, in order to make things better. And how she denied her own happiness to focus on the happiness of others.

While the 2008 TV version-also a British production-presses the faith and religion buttons pretty hard, aside from several declarations by Florence that she heard a call from God when she was 17, this fact-based screenplay from Rose Leiman Goldemberg ("The Burning Bed") and Ivan Moffat ("Hitler: The Last Ten Days") serves up a secular portion of 19th-century history.

The film begins with shots of Embley Park, now a school. But in the 1840s the gargantuan mansion was home to William Nightingale (Jeremy Brett), his wife Fanny (Claire Bloom), and their daughters, Parthenope (Ann Thornton) and Florence (Smith). To show the lavish world of privilege that Miss Nightingale gives up, but also the reason why she felt motivated to do more with her life, the filmmakers begin with a grand party and the kind of polite conversation and manners that characterized the lives of aristocrats in Dickensian England. There was no middle class to speak of, only the very rich and the very poor, and hospitals were filthy places with doctors who are drunks and nurses those doctors thought of as nothing more than harlots--as Flo's stunned sister points out when she hears her of her aspiration to become a nurse. It was beneath her class, and women at that time really had no option other than marriage. Her parents wished that she would just accept the proposal of dashing poet and politician Richard Milnes (Timothy Dalton), but Florence strings him along. She feels closed-in. There were no careers available to women, and that's exactly what Florence wanted-nothing short of a radical departure from societal norms.

None of this was lost on the people in the first hospital she visits. And when she goes to Germany to study nursing and returns, expecting to practice her profession, she learns that women are no more permitted in men's wards of hospitals than they are in the gentlemen's club to which her father belongs. Even the nurses in women's wards oppose her ideas with a single defense: that's not the way it's done.

Eventually, as we see throughout the course of this film, Nightingale fights to incorporate her ideas-things like installing mechanical lifts (dumbwaiters) so the nurses don't have to waste their time carrying food, installing hot-water feeds, scrubbing floors, changing dressings frequently, opening windows for ventilation, and hiring a chemist on-site to reduce the chances of mistakes. None of these things were practiced at the time. Hospitals were filthy rooms with straw on the floor, patients sleeping side-by-side, none of them treated except to amputate a leg. And we do get the obligatory leg-amputation-without-chloroform scenes.

In short order, and with dramatic improvement, her success at the hospital becomes "the talk of London" and she becomes the resentment of the head nurse under her as a result, who is jealous of the credit and notice that Nightingale receives. That kind of jealousy will be Nightingale's undoing at several other junctures in her life as she grows even more famous. But to put things in perspective, recall the headlines and national debate when women wanted to go into combat in the United States military. It hadn't been done before, and those who pushed for it to happen found that society pushed right back. The same thing happens to Nightingale when she decides to raise money and enlist 40 nurses to take to the main base hospital for the British fighting the Crimean War. She arrives in Suctari, Turkey, in November 1854 with the blessing of the Secretary of War (Peter McEnery), whom she met at a party (and in real-life dated, though not in this picture). Imagine her surprise to be told by a rigid Dr. Menzies (Michael Elwyn) that they are far from London and that a rigid Dr. Hall (Jeremy Child) will tell her what she can and can't do. The rest of the film follows the progress she makes and the doctors who either fight her or admire her. We don't get the figures in the film, but just six months after she arrived in Scutari, Nightingale's changes produced dramatic results. Hospital deaths dropped from 42 percent to just 2.2 percent.

Smith does a decent job with the part, though she begins with a British accent that she quickly loses. Dalton is onboard mostly for his reaction shots, and so seems a bit wasted. But all of the actors do a nice job of immersing themselves in character and in Victorian times. The illusion is helped considerably by location filming in England and believable-looking sets, costumes, and military action. Same with the cinematography, which feels more big-screen than small-screen much of the time. And director Daryl Duke, who won an Emmy for "The Thornbirds," adroitly handles the narrative sweep of the film. Several scenes seem to go on a bit too long, or move a little too slowly, but overall this TV production is a nice biographical portrayal of one of history's legendary figures.

Two surprises here. The first is that a film with a widescreen mentality would be presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and the second is that for a TV movie shot under different conditions the picture quality would be as excellent as it is. In a party scene, a tapestry on the back wall would usually be the source of all sorts of noise, but that's not the case here. There's a nice amount of detail, true colors, and strong black levels that provide a nice contrast even in shadowy scenes.

The audio is a simple Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono. Even the war scenes don't resonate the way they might with a more robust soundtrack. But this was television, and you almost expect it to be front-heavy. There's at least no distortion and no distractions. Subtitles are in English.

There are no bonus features.

Bottom Line:
Though slow-moving in spots, this biopic about the "mother of modern nursing" stays close enough to the facts to be worthwhile, and has production values rich enough to make the drama come alive. And Charlie's Angel Smith is more believable than not as the saintly Victorian woman who left her aristocratic past to guarantee a better future for the poor.


Film Value