June 20, 2013

Mary, Queen of Scots (1971)
Grade: 72/100

Director: Charles Jarrott
Stars: Vanessa Redgrave, Glenda Jackson, Timothy Dalton

What it's about. A biopic on the turbulent adult life of Mary I of Scotland (Vanessa Redgrave) and her long-distance relationship with her cousin Queen Elizabeth (Glenda Jackson) of England. Mary is executed at the age of 44 yet outlives three husbands.

As the film begins, young Mary is wed to King Francis II of France (Richard Denning). He becomes ill and dies, and court intrique threatens Mary. She decides to claim her throne in Scotland, where she has reigned practically since birth. But Scotland is mostly Protestant, while Mary is Catholic, facts ever-threatening court plots and civil war.

Cagey Queen Elizabeth sends two men to Mary, Elizabeth's lover Robert Dudley (Daniel Massey) and handsome, titled, but hopelessly decadent Lord Darnley (Timothy Dalton). Though choosing Dudley will make Mary heir to the English crown, Mary foolishly chooses the weak and vain Darnley.

Darnley promptly makes an ass of himself, and plots with Protestant lords to kill his court rival, Catholic cleric Riccio (Ian Holm). The Protestant conspirators are determined to remove Mary and replace her with Darnley as a puppet king. Mary, by now pregnant, somehow convinces Darnley to flee with her to the estate of her manly man supporter, Lord Bothwell (Nigel Davenport).

Mary delivers a healthy son. Bothwell schemes with others to murder Darnley, then marries Mary. She is then forced to abdicate after Bothwell is defeated by an army raised by Mary's humorless Protestant brother James (Patrick McGoohan).

Mary flees to England but becomes the prisoner of Queen Elizabeth for nearly 20 years. Eventually, Mary conspires against Elizabeth via letters exchanged with European Catholic interests. Mary's correspondence is intercepted, and she is executed for treason. Meanwhile, her son James is raised as a Protestant by his uncle James, and since Queen Elizabeth dies childless, succeeds her as the English monarch.

Well known British thespian Trevor Howard has a supporting role as Elizabeth's chief advisor, cunning and loyal William Cecil.

How others will see it. Mary, Queen of Scots was well received, though box office was middling. At the Golden Globes, it was nominated for Best Motion Picture. Jackson and Redgrave were both nominated, as was John Hale's screenplay.

The Oscars were less generous. The movie garnered five nominations, but the only major nod for Redgrave as Best Actress. The film was shut out in all categories at both the Golden Globes and the Oscars, and BAFTA ignored it completely.

At imdb.com, the user vote total is a surprisingly low 2.2K. However, the user ratings are respectable at 7.3. A gender gap emerges among viewers over 30, and increases among those over 45, where women give it an 8.4 versus the 7.1 bestowed by men. Older women presumably see the film for what it actually is: a campy good time.

How I felt about it. The reason that Mary, Queen of Scots exists has to do with the success of Anne of the Thousand Days (1969), also produced by legendary film mogul Hal B. Wallis. Wallis wanted the lead in the 1969 film, young beauty Geneviéve Bujold, to play Queen Mary in the present movie. Fortunately for us, Bujold declined and Redgrave, who seems made for the role, became Mary.

Anne of the Thousand Days and Mary, Queen of Scots share the same producer, director, and writer (John Hale). Nonetheless, the latter movie is much better, and the reason why is easy to discern. Mary, Queen of Scots is more blatantly campy, and thus more enjoyable. Bujold tries to make us feel sorry for Anne Boleyn. Redgrave instead milks her role for all its inherent soap opera drama.

Alas for director John Hale, his next film was Lost Horizon (1973), a box office bomb that drew scathing reviews. Though Anglo and American fascination with the Tudor dynasty continues to the present day (who knows anything about the dual reign of William and Mary?), Wallis moved on to other projects.

As for historical accuracy, the basic plot of Mary, Queen of Scots doubtlessly exaggerates. When Queen Elizabeth learned that Queen Mary had given birth, she probably did not fall to her knees screaming in anguish. We know that Elizabeth and Mary never met in real life (they meet twice here).

A Tudor and Stuart historian could no doubt pick the film apart, but such an effort would miss the point of the movie. It is amusing, though perhaps unintentionally so. It presents a web of intrigue with ruthless Darwinian winnowing of the schemers into two winners, Elizabeth of England, who has the advantage all along, and the elder James of Scotland, who keeps his head when everyone else behaves rashly.