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.
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 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.