*. 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.