The Man Who Loved the Lady with the Lamp: Timothy Dalton in “Florence Nightingale” (1985)

Okay so Florence Nightingale is probably the most famous nurse to ever live, with good reason, as she pretty much revolutionised the field by introducing sanitation measures (seriously, wash your hands) in hospitals, and establishing the first secular nursing school in the world.

A famous lithograph of Nightingale from a painting by Henrietta Rae.

So, of course, they were going to make an enormous amount of bio-pics about her, and one of the most enjoyable offerings is the TV movie made in 1985, starring Jaclyn Smith in the titular role, with a very respectable supporting cast. It includes Jeremy Brett as her dad, Claire Bloom as her mother, Brian Cox as one of her allies in Scutari, and our man of the hour, Timothy Dalton as Nightingale’s long-time (nine years to be exact) real life suitor, Richard Monckton Milnes, 1st Baron Houghton.

The real Richard Monckton Milnes. Could be Tim’s twin!

The TV movie follows Florence before her famous contributions in the Crimean War, when she was seemingly destined to marry her drippy first cousin and study opera, for no apparent reason.

Florence with said drippy first cousin. Dude, she’s not into you.

But when Florence meets the handsome, progressive, Richard Monckton Milnes, she admits that she has had a calling from God, since she was seventeen, to become a nurse and heal the sick and poor. She and Milnes grow closer, and he helps her train to be a nurse in Germany. Despite the crushing disapproval of her aristocratic parents (her mother even threatens to faint), she eventually becomes the Superintendent at the hospital for Gentle Women in Harley Street. But this is not enough, God requires more from her. She must go to Scutari, Constantinople (modern day Üsküdar, Istanbul), and help the “common soldiers”, who are dying of typhoid, typhus, cholera and dysentery, due to appalling conditions and a lack of basic sanitation. The rest of the film follows her trials, tribulations and incredible triumphs, professional and personal, in Scutari.

The Dickensesque titular introduction for the film.

This film does indeed have a massive scoop of 80s TV mini-seriesesque melodrama, and Jaclyn Smith and Timothy Dalton are obviously incredibly, unrealistically attractive whilst playing people who had weak chins. The tagline for the film in the original NBC promo is “Before she was a legend, she was a woman”, and the DVD cover synopsis reads that she becomes “the caring nurse whose shadow soldiers kiss.”

That is some… tagline.

However, this film is definitely trying to be both entertaining and fairly factual, which I believe it is. Whilst historians now argue that Nightingale’s contributions during the Crimean War may have been exaggerated by contemporaneous newspapers, it is almost universally agreed that her ideas and methods were pioneering and very valuable. This film does not set out to dissect every minutia of Nightingale’s life, but it does attempt to show the struggles she faced as firstly a woman, and as a woman of the ruling class who had an interest in the *gasp* great unwashed.

Florence, holding a bouquet of flowers from Monckton Milnes before she leaves for Hell on Earth A.K.A Scutari. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This is by far, in my humble opinion, Jaclyn Smith’s best role. It proves that she was indeed the best actress (also by far) to star as a titular angel in Charlie’s Angels. She gives a compelling performance as a woman on a mission that she believes is sent from God, and who experiences terrible mental and physical strain as a ministering angel through a war where thousands of men died from diseases that could have easily been cured, and even prevented, by medicines that were invented about a century afterwards. She holds the entire film together, and shows real character depth and arc as she transforms from the young, naïve girl who wants to help the sick and poor, to a woman who suffers terrible tragedy, but transforms the medical field with her genius and fortitude.

Florence does her nightly vigil in the overcrowded Scutari hospital.

At the time Florence Nightingale was made, Timothy Dalton had carved out a very respectable career for himself on stage, in TV and film. He was two years away from becoming the fourth James Bond, although no one knew it, and he had played Heathcliff, Mr Rochester and Romeo. He gives another assured, moving performance as Richard Monckton Milnes. Although his role is not very large, and he does not appear in the second half of the film after Florence leaves for Scutari, he conveys what I think Monckton Milnes felt in real life: a deep love and longing for a woman who loved him, but could not choose him over her destined path in life as a nurse and healer.

Florence, Florence, give me your answer do.

His entrance into the film is very memorable, as he stands out, tall, dark and proud, amongst the pale, ordinary guests at a ball. It is here where her first meets Florence, and tells her that her dreams of being more than just a wife and mother, and to not be a mere “ornament of society”, is not only justified, but obtainable.

I mean, who’s going to choose their drippy cousin over this guy?

He and Jaclyn Smith’s chemistry is wonderful. Their relationship weaves throughout the story with naturalness and heartbreaking pathos. When Florence tells him that she cannot be his wife and will never marry, he initially reacts with anger, but he later tells her that they will have a lasting bond (wink, wink), and that he will love her and support her in whatever capacity he can, for the rest of their lives. He is the only non-family member who sees her off to her unprecedented journey to Scutari. When he writes to her that he is to marry, after waiting for her for almost ten years, it is a heart rending, but incredibly well modulated scene, with Smith’s convincing pain at the knowledge that she has forever lost the man she loves, and Dalton’s beautiful voice over which conveys so much without us seeing his character.

Monckton accepts that Florence will likely never be his wife. Bummer.

He also acts as a narrator throughout the film, as if Monckton Milnes has kept his vow to Florence, and is retelling her life story, even when he is not directly a part of it. This adds to the richness of his portrayal, as his narration is natural, acting as a much needed chorus for the audience, not only narrating her arc that stretches over many years, but also commenting on and explaining how other characters see her and her vocation.

I watch Florence Nightingale for the plot. The plot:

Overall, whilst this film is not attempting to be a definitive version of Florence Nightingale’s life, it endeavours to entertain the audience, and respectfully convey the story of a woman who really did defy convention, and who we owe much to in terms of the roots of the sanitation practices in modern medicine.

This is my contribution for my and Gill’s You Knew My Name: The Bond Not Bond Blogathon.


13 thoughts on “The Man Who Loved the Lady with the Lamp: Timothy Dalton in “Florence Nightingale” (1985)”

  1. My first post is out in about an hour… high 5! Loved this post and your wee humourous asides. This looks like one I’d like, for the cast and taglines alone. Havent seen this but its the sort of thing my granny would have adored. Thanks for being such a fabulous co-host and looking forward to possibly working with you again one day (HB?) and post 2.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jaclyn Smith played Florence Nightingale? How could I have missed it back in the day? And what a handsome costar! Love Dalton in all his non Bond roles…adding this one to my list.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “I watch Florence Nightingale for the plot. The plot:”

    This sounds like the people back in the day who claimed to read Playboy for the articles. In that vein, as an American male of a particular age, Jaclyn Smith will always be a Charlie’s Angel in my eyes (speaking of “eye candy”). I would point out her obvious appeal there, but that would tempt me far too much to make a bad play on words directed at your use of “titular.” 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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