Mary, Queen of Scots (1971)

*. Hal Wallis back for another round of Tudormania, with director Charles Jarrott again at the helm. You could almost think of it as a sequel to Anne of the Thousand Days, and indeed the lead part was apparently intended for Geneviève Bujold. Even the basic structure of the story is the same, with a falling out between the heroine and England’s monarch, leading to the destruction of the former, only for her to be avenged, as prophesied, by her offspring.
*. It might have worked. They weren’t afraid to take a number of historical liberties in order to play up the main draw, which is the conflict between Mary (Vanessa Redgrave) and Elizabeth (Glenda Jackson). Even to the point where they are shown secretly getting together twice (it’s generally assumed by historians that they never actually met). But the foregrounding of this fraught relationship is also telling. The thing is, Elizabeth has more vitality than Mary, and as played by Jackson — busting a lute or beating the hell out of poor Dudley — she puts Redgrave, playing one of history’s great victims, in the shade.

*. Perhaps that’s why, in the words of Pauline Kael in her review of this one, “Mary’s ‘tragic destiny’ has always been a movie flop” (I take it that she’s mainly referring here to the 1936 Katherine Hepburn vehicle Mary of Scotland). Mary led an eventful life, at least for its first couple of acts, and was not without resources, but Scottish politics chewed her up.
*. You can tell they were really trying to pump up the drama in conventional modern ways. Darnley is played by Timothy Dalton as a whining homosexual (typecast after his turn in The Lion in Winter?) who was bedding David Riccio (Ian Holm). I guess there were rumours about this at the time, but then rumours of homosexuality were a standard way of tearing someone down in the Middle Ages. Meanwhile, Mary only has eyes for Bothwell (Nigel Davenport). The truth was probably more mundane. Darnley was just an angry drunk and Bothwell a brute who didn’t care for Mary at all (a lack of feeling that was reciprocated). But with all these costumes they needed to find some romance somewhere.
*. Other historical figures tend to be cartoons, like John Knox who only shows up to spit “Papist whore!” at Mary. Trevor Howard as Cecil is the lone bright spot as the sort of intriguer we recognize from our own courts. I like Jackson, who was also playing Elizabeth in the miniseries Elizabeth R at the same time. I wonder if they plucked her forehead to make it look that strange. Kael thought her performance had “a sort of camp humor,” as “She looks like a ragpicker hag dressed by Klimt.” That’s bitchy, but I don’t think it’s quite right. Jackson is mannish and modern, but not incongruous.

*. Redgrave is fine. Apparently Jane Fonda (!) and Sophia Loren (?!) were both considered ahead of her for the part (indeed, Redgrave was going to play Elizabeth). Maybe Fonda or Loren could have turned this into the trashy soaper that you feel that it wants to be. Redgrave is a bit gray, which is why the movie keeps dragging us back to Elizabeth’s court.
*. John Barry contributes a jaunty score. The costumes are nice and some of the photography nicely done. You almost seem at times to be looking at a period painting. But it’s all a bit dull. There’s lots of expository dialogue explaining the political machinations but few dramatic highlights, despite all of the potential in the material. In fact, part of the problem was that there may have been too much material. I could imagine a decent biopic being made just based on Mary’s early years and time at the French court, and another dealing with her marriage to Darnley, and another covering her time in custody (the last nineteen years of her life). Few lives have the kind of consistency, or uneventfulness, to be boiled down to a two-hour drama. What we end up with here isn’t good history, or a very insightful biopic, but just horses and lace collars and stuff.

68 thoughts on “Mary, Queen of Scots (1971)

  1. fragglerocking

    Managed to miss this one though I did see the Glenda Jackson series. Margaret George (the Henry 8 autobiography I told you about) also wrote the life of Mary and that was excellent too.

    1. Alex Good

      Yeah, there’s so much soapy stuff here I think it probably works better as a series. I put a request in for the Tudors at at the library so I’ll be checking that out next week on your say-so!

      1. Alex Good Post author

        They’ll hold them for a week. But it’s a nice walk to the library so it usually doesn’t take that long for me to pick them up.

      1. tensecondsfromnow

        Just dealing with excitement in my comments secrtion; looks like I’m the first credible, serious 21st century critic to consider the legacy of Charlie Chan in the movies. Why not stop by and learn something?, hahahahhahaha!

      2. Alex Good Post author

        Your comment secretions do need some managing. Who was Warner Orland? Hard to get past the obvious language barriers in your writing.

      3. tensecondsfromnow

        You must have your spectacles on upside down again, grandpa. Must dazzle you to see such pioneering writing. Astonishing that these films have not been tackled by anyone of any literary merit until now.

      4. tensecondsfromnow

        Fake news! I see no criminality! Anyone could have mocked this up! Proves nothing!


        It’s not like a topless women with her eyes gouged out, something that you might enjoy privately?

      5. tensecondsfromnow

        Is there space on your hard-drive considering the bulging file of ‘Mutilated Models’? Maybe if you read my pieces rather than photoshopping errors into them, you might learn about how an award-winning writer can cover these films to powerful effect?

      6. Alex Good Post author

        I’m off the grid now. We’ve already established that I’m hiding and you can’t see me. Why, I might be standing outside your door . . .

  2. Bookstooge

    Mary a victim? Really? I realize my knowledge of history of that era is probably the one week in highschool but I’d be interested how you view her as a victim.

    1. Bookstooge

      And I see from your comments that you and Dix are almost at an agreement for a Peace Treaty. Always good to see old friends coming back together 😉

    2. Alex Good

      She was basically just used (and abused) by other people almost her whole life. Lousy marriages to a couple of brutal jerks. The Scottish lairds did her over. Spent the last twenty years of her life rotting in captivity.

      1. Alex Good Post author

        Oh that’s fine if I get to go places. Just not Scotland. Already been. Don’t want to go back as I’ve heard it hasn’t got any better.

      2. tensecondsfromnow

        What’s with this attack on my home country? My attacks on you are bespoke, tailored to you specifically. Rude to rope a whole country in, I’d imagine Canada is a fine place.

      3. Alex Good Post author

        I have to generalize from the population sample I have to draw on.
        Have you not visited Canada? Odd for someone who fashions himself a globetrotter.

      4. Alex Good Post author

        Sounds like they’ve set you up for a sting operation. I wouldn’t accept that invitation. They’ve been wanting to shut down the Scottish mafia over here for a while.

      5. Alex Good Post author

        If you’re looking to get someone from the Ceeb to buy you a drink you’re going to be disappointed. They may be totally defunded by September. Your CBC pals are all skint.

      6. Alex Good Post author

        No vitriol for the Ceeb, though I’m one of the very few in this country who can say that. Anyone who works there has my sympathy. What I said (if you’d been reading carefully, which you weren’t) was that nobody there was going to be able to buy you a drink.

      7. tensecondsfromnow

        It seems to bother you that your national broadcaster sees me as a rising new voice in the art of film criticism, and you as a hermit lunatic, peeing through his knee length beard. Discuss.

      8. Alex Good Post author

        This country takes a lot of pride in its hermit lunatics. They’re national icons. Something to keep in mind if you’re visiting.

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