Celebrities have long aligned themselves with political causes, but few actually make as significant a difference as Fanny Kemble, a British actress whose memoirs of life on a slave-owning plantation changed the course of the Civil War. Although “Enslavement” is essentially Kemble’s story, director James Keach’s elaborate costumer feels more like a tribute to his wife, star Jane Seymour, than to the maverick actress turned abolitionist.
Keach’s lens focuses long and lovingly on Seymour, who appears in just about every scene of this bodice-ripping drama. An odd choice for Showtime, the production is tame by cable standards and seems more akin to a network movie of the week. Still, a heart-felt performance by Seymour buoys this earnest albeit flawed production.
Christopher Lofton’s script, while detailed and ambitious, is enthralled with the legend of Kemble, a contradictory character who refused to conform, yet left the theater to marry a controlling, traditional Southern gentleman. Although Kemble’s diligent efforts to fight slavery and help the Underground Railroad are the backbone of the film, Lofton can’t resist languishing on the troubled marriage between the Kemble and her Southern plantation owner husband Pierce Butler (Keith Carradine).
Kemble, a reluctant actress born into a theatrical family, disliked the notion of playing out someone else’s life and longed for adventures of her own. A prolific writer and poet, Kemble kept journals of her tumultuous life with Butler, especially of the time she spent in Georgia trying to improve the living conditions of 600 slaves on her husband’s plantation. It was her journal from this period that was used to persuade the British government to cease financial aid to the Confederacy — a crucial event that many believe led to the South’s defeat.
Kemble was indeed ahead of her time, but she was also a pampered star whose righteous indignation, while completely righteous, put the people whose cause she championed in grave danger. Her reckless abandon and fervent activism cost lives and eventually cost Kemble her marriage and custody of her children.
While much is made of Kemble’s passion for justice, the script loses sight of the personal consequences for Kemble, who lived a good portion of her life away from her children. Similarly, the movie passes quickly over the initial attraction between Kemble and Butler, which, over the course of the movie, becomes harder to rationalize. Carradine does the most with the difficult role of Butler, a product of his Southern upbringing whose sensibilities conflicted with his intense feelings for Kemble.
However, not too surprisingly, it is the palpable chemistry between Seymour and Keach, who appears in a small part as fellow abolitionist Dr. Huston, that instills the movie with a sense of romance.
Oz’s Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje makes for a powerful presence as Joe, a slave who is wary of any help from Kemble. Sharon Washington also provides a nice, understated turn as Joe’s wife Psyche.
Costume design by Cheri Ingle is immaculately detailed while Roland “Ozzie” Smith’s lush cinematography, combined with Eric Fraser’s production design, evokes the romance and grandeur of the South as well as serving as a grim reminder to the atrocities slavery.