The Ballad of Tam Lin

I had never heard of this obscure 1970 film until I read someone else’s review of it last fall. I was so intrigued by the description that I sought my own DVD copy to watch. As the narrator explains early on:

“There is a story in verse that belongs to this part of the country, the border of England and Scotland. It is hundreds of years old. It tells the adventures of a young man held in thrall by the Queen of the Faeries… A dangerous lady. It is called the Ballad of Tam Lin.”

Tam Lin panel

The film retells this old folk ballad in a modern setting. It is Roddy McDowall’s only film as a director (It was his work on this that kept him from playing Cornelius in Beneath the Planet of the Apes).

The film begins with a young black man in cool-cat 1960s clothes playing a sultry sax while sitting in the front hall of a grand London townhouse on a staircase beneath a crystal chandelier. He’s seen through a glass panel with frosted images painted on it which depict people wearing medieval clothes and enacting key scenes from the old ballad–and also showing us the plot of the story we’re about to see.

The camera then takes us upstairs past the chandelier and into a vast white bedroom containing a vast white bed. Two naked people recline beneath the sheets, Tom Lynn (Ian McShane) and Michaela “Mickey” Cazaret (Ava Gardner). They have the following post-coital conversation:

Tom: “I love you.”
Mickey: “I’m immensely old.”
Tom: “It doesn’t matter.”
Mickey: “It doesn’t matter to you. You grow older every year. I grow older every sordid second.”

He insists again that it doesn’t matter. She grows more beautiful with age.
She responds, “I love you…. I will love you and leave you for dead.”

Tom and Mickey

He should be paying more attention to her side of the conversation, but he’s too young and besotted. Instead, he kisses her, and they go at it again.

A little later, the couple comes downstairs dressed and ready to go out. When they meet the saxophonist on the stairs, they want to know who he is. He explains that “some chap brought me” and adds that he’s been having a crazy dream.

Mickey responds that he’s wearing her tinted glasses. When she gently takes them off his face, she asks if he wants to stay with her. “A lot of people do. I’m immensely rich.”

The deal she offers is that he can live as he chooses and stay as long as he likes, or until she’s sick of him. Whichever comes first.

He accepts.

From this introduction, you might imagine that the saxophone player will have an important part in the drama that follows, but once he joins Mickey’s gang, he blends in with the rest. He’s frequently there, but I never even caught his name.

Traquair

After breakfast, they get into one of several expensive cars parked out front–a Rolls, a Bentley, and a couple of lesser vehicles. A collection of hippy kids wearing the height of Carnaby St. fashions, who are staying with Mickey, all pile in. She’s obviously made this same offer to lots of young people before.

We also meet one the people she’s sick of. A boy wants to get in the Rolls with her and Tom, and he’s firmly rejected. It doesn’t look like anyone wants him to come along with the group, but he manages to squeeze into one of the lesser cars before they drive off.

Under the opening credits, this convoy heads north from London on the M1 to the Scottish border country, to a house I’ve actually been to. Traquair. It’s the oldest inhabited house in Scotland. Mary Queen of Scots and her husband Lord Darnley visited once with their infant son–a rare moment when they were all together before he was murdered and she was deposed and fled to years of imprisonment in England, and the baby became James IV before he was old enough to walk. The house is called Carterhaugh here, in keeping with the name of the house in the ballad.

JanetSome time after Mickey and her group settle in, Janet (Stephanie Beacham) comes along on a bicycle with a puppy in the basket.

She goes around to the back of the house, where she first sees the hippy kids lounging around or playing Frisbee. She’s a wholesome and innocent vicar’s daughter, so these ultra-Mod people seen strange and wondrous to her.

Janet catches the Frisbee when it comes her way after Tom misses it; he runs over to retrieve it from her, but she’s too shy or awestruck and doesn’t speak to him.

The first person she does speak to is Joanna Lumley–playing another character whose name I didn’t get; the end credits and IMDB tell me it’s Georgia–about someone wanting a puppy. Georgia refers her to the people up on the terrace. A couple of girls are doing a Tarot reading. One of them asks Janet to pick a card. It’s the Lovers.

At last, Janet locates the person who wanted a puppy. It’s Sue (Madeleine Smith, using an annoying, squeaky, baby-doll voice and behaving as if she’s 4 years old). After seeing the way Sue squeals and grabs at the puppy, Janet doesn’t want to give it to her. Mickey says she’ll see that Sue takes good care of it, and asks Janet how much she wants for the dog. Janet says she’ll sell it for 50 pounds. It’s a ridiculous price, something like $200; Janet expects that Mickey will refuse to pay it, but Mickey instructs her somewhat sinister assistant Elroy to write Janet a check.

As he takes her into the house, Elroy tells Janet, “You had your opportunity to play with the grown-ups, but you’ve blown it.”

Janet isn’t put off by this casual flaunting of wealth. It only impresses her more. Once home, she confides to her father, the local vicar (Cyril Cusack), that Mickey is “Glamorous and grand like a goddess” and that even though she was cross about the puppy thing, she couldn’t help feeling as if Mickey could give her something she needed.

Dad thinks Janet ought to send the check back, but Janet compromises by tucking it away in the sugar bowl, for the present uncashed.

Days pass in montage. Mickey and the kids hang out in the Hall garden, play childish games, meditate. Mickey, dressed in colorful flowing robes that remind me somewhat of Endora, Mickeywanders the patch of giant rhubarb behind the house (There’s a maze there now).

At last, Mickey ejects that boy that she didn’t want to come. He cries and pleads to stay, claiming that he can’t live without her.

She coolly replies: “One comes, another goes. You can live or, if you’re too ill to live, you can die. Elroy will drive you to the station.”

It’s Tom she’s got her eye on now, and becomes possessive of him. The next time we see them in bed together, she bites his buttock (through the bedsheet; if you’re aching to see Ian McShane’s bare bottom, he gets out of bed sans sheet a moment later and falls down drunk on the floor).

The following morning, Janet heads out for a walk to Carterhaugh; she pretends that it’s just a stroll, but the “Ballad of Tam Lin” is first sung over the scenes of her hiking the scenic Scottish hills to let us know that she’s about to run into Tom.

“I forbid you, maidens all,
That wear gold in your hair,
To come or go by Carterhaugh,
For young Tam Lin is there.”

As her luck would have it, Tom’s also out hiking the rugged countryside, walking off his hangover. He’s wearing Mickey’s tinted glasses against the glare of the sun. The ballad continues, telling us exactly what we’re seeing as the young couple come upon each other by a bridge over a rocky stream below a waterfall. I suspect these verses were composed specially for the film; I can’t find anything like them in any version of the ballad online.

The film gets weird here. As Janet and Tom see each other, the action freezes and everything is shown in still shots, except for a few seconds when she takes off his glasses. He gets handsy with her. She pushes him aside. He slips on the wet rocks by the water and falls–not into the stream, but on the grass beside it. She turns back and looks sorry, and sits down beside him. They smile, laugh, talk.  They kiss. The film returns to action.

Tom and Janet at the bridge

The sex scenes between Mickey and Tom have been fairly frank, but whatever happens between Tom and Janet after that first kiss is much more coy. We don’t see them have sex, and at first viewing I wouldn’t have said that they did in spite of the ballad’s lyrics warning maidens that Tam Lin will require “either their mantles green or else their maidenhead.” But as the two walk back toward the Hall, he asks her “Why did you let me?” Which is an odd question if all they did was kiss.

Anyway, she’s not sorry it happened, but she doesn’t answer this question.

Tom won’t let Janet accompany him onto the Carterhaugh property, as if it’s a magical realm and she too might fall under Mickey’s spell if she enters. Living with Mickey, he tells her, is like living in pure oxygen. You don’t think, and you don’t care.

They part on another bridge at the bottom of the garden. As they say goodbye, they’re being watched by Elroy. He must go straight from there to inform his employer, for Mickey and the sax playerMickey meets Tom once he’s back in her garden.

She kisses him, then says, “I can taste her on you. She tastes like watered milk.”

That night, there’s a party inside the house. There’s probably a party every night. The hippy kids are rocking out. Someone offers the ditzy Sue a pill. “I’ll swallow anything as long as it’s illegal,” she responds cheerfully before taking it.

When Tom comes downstairs, he puts Janet’s green hair ribbon, which she gave him after their encounter, into the fire as a sort of pledge to Mickey.

He’s just in time for a new party game. One of the girls, the tarot-card reader, is apparently psychic. She can tell things about a person’s future by touching some object that belongs to them.  She insists that it isn’t a game, but the others push her into it.

Blindfolded, she does her psychic readings with a couple of objects that she’s given: a locket, car keys. Then someone pushes forward those tinted glasses. The moment her fingers touch them, she recoils in horror and asks, “Who do they belong to?”

No one answers, but Tom wants to know what she saw, what’s frightened her so much. She refuses to answer, but gets hysterical when he presses her and runs upstairs sobbing.

Blindfolded

After she goes, the party quickly breaks up. Only Tom and one other young man, Oliver, remain in the room. Oliver’s the one who gave the psychic the tinted glasses, and now he offers them to Tom.

“Take them, Lover,” he tells Tom. “They’re your future.”

Tom does take them, but he dismisses the idea of foreseeing the future as silly.

In spite of that ribbon-burning, he hasn’t really given up Janet. There wouldn’t be much of a movie if he did. On Sunday morning, he strolls out into the countryside again, finding his way to the village and lounging on the hillside above the church as he listens to the bells. He goes in to attend the service, obviously expecting to find Janet there.

The first part of Dad’s sermon that morning sounds as if it’s intended for his daughter: “We hope that love will make us happy,” he begins, “but outside of storybooks happily ever after doesn’t happen.” Then his point about love takes a ominous turn. Not only “that we must love one another or die,” but “we must love one another and die.”

As Tom emerges from the church, Oliver and Sue are out in the road in one of Mickey’s expensive sportscars; Mickey’s been wondering where he is, and he’s expected to get in with them and come back to Carterhaugh. But Janet invites him to lunch, so he refuses to return, and instead goes on a picnic with her and a little girl she’s looking after.

Tom and the church

When he does come back to Carterhaugh that afternoon, Elroy quietly informs him, “Your absence has been remarked.”

Oliver cattily suggests that the group play a new game, tableaux vivants. The subject he offers for the first tableau is “She was only a vicar’s daughter,” and he then lays out a scenario and gets suggestively vulgar enough about the seduction of the naive village girl by the big-city boy that Tom throws a drink at him.

Mickey takes Tom’s side and tells Oliver that if he causes trouble like this again, he’s out. Another party ends awkwardly. Actually, Mickey seems to be getting sick and tired of this whole bunch.

As the group goes their separate ways around the house, Tom heads downstairs in search of a fresh glass to replace the one he broke when he threw it as Oliver. Elroy catches him in a hallway and draws him aside, into a room. Elroy tells Tom that he’s been Mickey’s accountant for 16 years. “I keep the records.” He’s seen plenty of pretty boys come and go in that time, paid for their new suits at Mickey’s orders and seen the boys leave with nothing but their new clothes. But not all the boys leave that same way. What he then shows Tom isn’t the household accounts, but newspaper clippings about other handsome young men, all just 21 years old, whom his employer has taken up with in the past–and who died in crashed sportscars belonging to Mickey. There’s a photograph (we don’t see it) of one “lovely” boy who had his face smeared all over the road.

MickeyThese car accidents happen every 7 years and go back just far enough to hint that Mickey’s older than the 40-something she appears to be. When she told Tom at the beginning that she’s “immensely old,” that may not have been dramatic hyperbole.

Elroy gets called “a rancid old queen” for giving Tom this warning, but Tom does seem disturbed by it.

We hear more versus from the ballad as Tom goes up to Mickey s room; the pertinent lyrics are about Tam Lin’s life with the Queen of the Faeries:

“So pleasant is the Faerie Land,
But, an eerie tale to tell,
That at the end of seven years,
We pay our tithe to hell.”

He tells Mickey that he wants to leave, that he’s wasting his life here. Since meeting Janet, he’s started to think and to care again. But Mickey says that she loves him and won’t let him go. She wants him to say he’s afraid of what’s coming in the future. “Then you won’t be so frightened.”

Tom succumbs for the present and goes to bed with her, but goes on seeing Janet during the days even through she tells him that they don’t have to meet again. It’s up to him. She also asks him, “Are you afraid of her? She can’t kill you.” Which is exactly what he’s beginning to be afraid of.

The thing that’s most hard to believe in this is that Ian McShane is supposed to be a boy of 21. IMDB tells me that he was about 28 when this was filmed. Ava Gardner was 20 years older, but it feels like there’s a bit of Mrs.-Robinson casting here.

Six weeks pass, and Janet’s got a problem of her own that she hasn’t told Tom about, nor her father. She waits for her father to go away on a trip for a few days, then goes to call on an elderly woman, Miss Gibson (Fabia Drake) who lives in the village, an old friend of Janet’s late mother. She used to cast Mom’s horoscopes. Dad didn’t know about that either. Miss Gibson doesn’t provide abortions herself, but she can put Janet in touch with someone who does.

Fabia and Janet

The scene plays out more like a counseling session. Maybe it’s because she’s an old friend of Janet’s mother, but the old woman asks Janet if she’s told the baby’s father about the situation, if she really wants to get rid of the baby, and generally seems to be trying to talk her out of it. She tells Janet that she’ll be sorry if she does, but it’ll be 100 pounds for a note to a man in Edinburgh. That’s a high price to pay for a young woman in Janet’s position, but she still has Mickey’s check to cash.

“If that I go with child, Father,
Myself must bear the blame,
There’s ne’er a laird about your hall,
Shall get the fair bairn’s name.”

Meanwhile, Tom tells Mickey he wants to go away for a while to think. He’s was staying in a caravan somewhere; Mickey knows all about it. But before he goes, she asks that they spend one last night out.

She takes him to a swanky jazz nightclub in Edinburgh, most likely, or perhaps Glasgow. There aren’t that many cities in short driving distance that would have this sort of night-life in the late ’60s.

Over drinks, Mickey tells her erstwhile lover that she’ll give him a week’s truce, then she intends to come after him. Not to take him back, but to “hunt you down and kill you.”

She leaves him sitting there at their table, stunned, and goes home to tell all the other kids to get out. They’re to go back to London on the next train. Then she instructs Elroy to invite all his “special friends”. By the look Oliver gives Elroy after Mickey says this, I wonder if he’s one of the “specials”. At least, he’s the only one of the group still around after this.

Although we didn’t see the resolution of Janet’s decision about the abortion, it appears that she’s chosen to tell Tom about it before doing anything. But she’s left it too late. When she calls at Carterhaugh to see Tom, he’s gone along with all the other young people she knows, apart from Oliver. In their place are a number of young men in trim dark suits and Beatle haircuts.

Nightclub

Mickey informs Janet that Tom left 2 days ago. While she’s been relatively kind to Janet up until now, in spite of her jealousy, Mickey says that she’s lost her patience with children. Even when Janet tells her about the baby, Mickey won’t tell the distressed girl where he is.

So Janet buys her note for the man in Edinburgh, and goes to the city.

A recurring refrain in the traditional ballad has Janet pulling “a rose but only two” from the garden at Carterhaugh. The film moves this rose-pulling to the streets of Edinburgh, where she stops to buy two red roses from a street vendor’s cart on her way to her appointment. Sometimes, the lyrics seem a little too on-the-nose for what we’re seeing on the screen. We hear the lyric about the two roses just as Janet makes her purchase.

The next verse goes:

“Why puts thou the rose, Janet,
Among the groves so green,
And all to kill the bonny babe
That we got us between?”

This is sung while Tom is standing on the side of the same street and sees Janet with her two roses on the stoop of the doctor’s office; she’s about to go in, but he catches her before she does. Two roses

The lovers are reunited, and she spent all that money for nothing. Maybe Miss Gibson will give her a refund; it turns out that she was the one who told Tom where to find Janet.

The camera pulls back and up to a wide street view as they embrace on the doorstep. The viewer might mistakenly believe this is the end of the movie–if it weren’t for Mickey’s promise to hunt Tom down. That week’s truce she gave him still has a few days to go, and Elroy has been keeping an eye on Tom.

Tom takes Janet back to little caravan he’s been renting, which is parked with others in a spectacular location on the banks of the Forth between the lovely Victorian rail bridge (another place I’ve been!) and the newer motorway bridge.

The couple spends a day or two in happy idyll there, talking over their plans, but Tom doesn’t think to mention that he’s being hunted by Mickey until the last day, when he spots Elroy lurking.

When he does explain that he’s out of time and Mickey’s going to kill him, Janet calls it “ridiculous”. Tom agrees, “But it’s true.”

Forth railway bridge

They hastily pack to decamp, but when Tom carries their bags out to his car, one of Mickey’s limos is parked nearby.  Elroy, Oliver, and a couple of their moptop friends load Tom into it to take him back to Carterhaugh.

When Janet comes out, she finds the luggage on the ground and no sign of Tom. But she can guess where he is.

“Janet tied her kirtle green
A bit above her knee,
And she’s gone to Carterhaugh
As fast as she can hie.”

At Carterhaugh, we learn what happens to those pretty young boys of just 21–or, how to perform a human sacrifice and make it look like an accident.

Mickey gives Tom a drink drugged with some sort of powerful hallucinogen and then introduces him to her newly acquired group of boys and girls. Oliver–who’s been promoted from boytoy hanger-on to assistant henchman–proposes that they all play a grown-up version of that old-fashioned parlor game: Murder.Murder Game

Mickey will be the detective; he’ll be the murderer. Tom can be the victim.

Some of the new kids balk when Oliver hints this is to be a murder-for-real, but they’re all at least a little bit stoned and the line between games and reality quickly get blurred.  Tom is given a chance to hide somewhere in the house, just as the drugs kick in.

After some running and hiding, he collapses and is caught. The others carry him back to lay out before Mickey. She conducts what sounds more like a trial than a murder investigation, and pronounces her judgement of the victim.

Once he’s brought back to consciousness, she tells him there’s a little white sportscars parked out front, and he has a 3-minute’s head start. Get going.

Tom runs out of the house and jumps into the car. But just then, Janet arrives. Not perceiving the doped-up, in-no-fit-state-t0-drive condition he’s in, she gets into the car with him. They go tearing off as fast as they can along the winding, narrow country roads of rural Scotland, the others in pursuit. Sooner or later, they’re bound to run into something. A perfect setup for a horrific auto accident.

Will Janet, who is the hero of this story, save her lover from the Faerye Queen before the car crashes?

Things get trippy with bright colors and distorted lens-vision as Tom hallucinates. The special effects here border on silly, especially the bear’s costume he wears at one point while running through the woods after they do run off the road. BearHe also imagines that he’s wrestling a huge fakey snake when Janet tries to help him, and that he’s on fire.

This movie was retitled The Devil’s Widow when it was released in the US, and recut to make it more overtly a horror film. I haven’t seen that version–the only DVD that’s available has no extra features or information about the making of the film. But as I watch this, I wonder if what’s going on here is really meant to be supernatural. Tom seems to think he’s only gotten himself involved with an extremely wealthy older woman who is aging normally, but there are hints that Mickey does have powers he doesn’t understand.

At the end, when they do finally catch up with Tom, Oliver tells Mickey, “It’s over. It’s finished. It hasn’t happened yet.” As if there were some sort of time constraint–that Tom had to be dead by a certain point for the spell to work, and that time had past.

Mickey seems miffed, but she doesn’t suddenly age 1,000 years or crumble into dust.

In fact, she seems her same old self as she flies off to some exotic new locale, ready to collect another group of kids and play the same games. She didn’t get Tom, but she’s still got her money and she’s still got Elroy. And now she has Oliver, who doesn’t seem to mind at all what may be waiting for him in the future.

Oliver with the tinted glasses

 

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Author: Kathryn L Ramage

Kathryn L. Ramage has a B.A. and M.A. in English lit and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She lives in Maryland with three calico cats named after the Brontë sisters. In addition to being the author of numerous short stories, reviews, essays, and period mystery novellas, she is also the author of a series of fantasy novels set in a dukedom called the Northlands on an alternate Earth whose history has diverged from ours somewhere during the medieval period.