Are We Ready for the Exotic Adventures of Lady Hester, Queen of the Desert?
Where are Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich when you need them? An upcoming British movie, “The Lady Who Went Too Far,” sounds like it would have been a perfect vehicle for the actress and director who followed their German masterpiece “The Blue Angel” with the six classics of romantic exotica they made at Paramount in the 1930s.
Based on Kirsten Ellis’s 2008 biography “Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope,” the film will tell the story of the fearless socialite, camel-mounted desert traveler, and archaeological treasure-seeker who in 1815 conducted the first modern excavation in Palestine.
Guided by a medieval Italian medieval manuscript, she hoped to find three million gold coins buried under the ruins of a mosque in Ashkelon, eight miles north of Gaza. Her diggers instead turned up a headless, seven-foot marble stature, which she ordered to be smashed into smithereens and thrown into the Mediterranean.
A woman with messianic pretensions, she also dabbled in espionage, apparently helping to thwart Napoleon’s ambition of conquering India, as he had done Egypt. When traveling in the East, she wore Turkish man-drag. Dietrich and von Sternberg would have had a ball with that – and Lady Hester’s uninhibited attitude towards sex.
Realistically, the film (originally announced in 2010) is more likely to have the sweeping romance of “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) or “The English Patient” (1996), despite a comparatively limited budget of $18 million. It is being made by producer Gareth Unwin of Bedlam Productions and screenwriter David Seidler, who worked together previously on “The King’s Speech.” According to Screen Daily, it has just received development backing from the new British film and TV production company Cascade. A director has not yet been announced, but Tom Hooper, who followed “The King’s Speech” with “Les Misérables,” is an obvious candidate. If the decision is made to cast a British actress in the lead role, Rachel Weisz, Keira Knightley, and Hayley Atwell could be in the frame.
In the early 1800s, Lady Hester kept house and, as a brilliant conversationalist, hostessed for her unmarried uncle, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. She was prompted to leave England after the death of a brother and the cavalier treatment she endured in her relationship with her lover, the womanizing Whig politician and diplomat Granville Leveson Gower. Accompanied by her doctor and maid, she set off for the East in 1810, traveling via Gibraltar, where she met Michael Bruce, an educated charmer 12 years her junior who became her paramour – they mostly enjoyed each other under canvas. Bruce was eventually recalled to London and abandoned her, reneging on his promise to send her a thousand pounds a year.
She lived off a state pension, eventually settling in a disused monastery near Sidon, in modern-day Lebanon. There she gave sanctuary to hundreds of religious (Druze) refugees, earning the enmity of the Lebanese ruler Emir Bashir Shihan II. Cut off by Britain, she died a turbaned recluse, living in squalor, at the age of 63.