Orphaned Sylvia (Aleks Darowska) lives with her Aunt Jane in Victorian England, and today she is being sent to stay with her cousin Bonnie (Emily Hudson) in her family's country mansion for the winter. This is down to Bonnie's wealthy parents spending the season away from home due to Bonnie's mother suffering poor health and her doctor has recommended she go abroad where the climate is more amenable to her condition. However, the girls cannot stay alone with the servants, much as they would like to, and so a governess, Miss Slycarp (Stephanie Beacham) is employed. But she has her own agenda...
Those who have seen this adaptation of Joan Aiken's classic children's novel The Wolves of Willoughby Chase appear to be split into two camps. There are those who regard it as a welcome version of a great book which they are pleased to see even in an altered incarnation, and those who view it as a bastardisation of a beloved part of their childhood that unncecessarily coarsens the fine plotting and characters. The truth may be that it's better not to have read the book before seeing the film, as comparisons are not going to make you like it any more if you particularly enjoyed the original.
If you take it as a dark pantomime then the film doesn't seem quite so bad. Yes, Bonnie has too much of the precocious brat in her, but you can believe she would stand up to the villains even if there's more than a hint of "don't you know who I am?" about the performance. Poor Sylvia seems so weak it's a miracle she surrvives the winter, but she is envigorated by the proximity of her cousin and eventually begins to shine on her own. Yet it's the villians who make for the most memorable personalities, people who you feel no compunction about hissing when they strut onto screen.
Chief among them is Slycarp, the ringleader, played by Beacham as if she stepped off the set of Dynasty and into the Victorian era. She looks as if she's enjoying herself as she schemes the downfall of Bonnie's family with a cunningly conceived plan, and she's backed up by her right hand man Mr Grimshaw (Mel Smith) who Sylvia met on the train thinking it was by chance, but in fact he has designs on the fortune of Bonnie's parents. Then there's Mrs Brisket (Geraldine James), an orphan's workhouse-owning tyrant, another of the adults who the girls must overcome.
The wolves of the title could just as easily refer to the baddies as the actual animals who stalk the landscape and forests. This is where the fantasy element turns up, as with Aiken's book this is an England where wolves never died out and packs of them roam around the countryside, terrorising the unwary. The film is unafraid to stare death in the face, and not only in the fate of the plotters either, as one of the orphans drowns in the workhouse laundry where Bonnie and Sylvia end up. Director Stuart Orme and scriptwriter William M. Akers keep the story eventful so there's no time to grow restless as peril is piled upon danger for the protagonists, and actually the result is fairly diverting. It's never going to be as well thought of as the book, but it probably never would have been anyway. Music by Colin Towns.