Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Everything I know about English history I know from the movies, so the "facts" in my summary may be totally wrong, but this is how I understood things based on this film. In the mid 16th century, the British royal line is split in two. Queen Elizabeth I (Glenda Jackson), a Protestant, rules England; Mary Stuart, a Catholic, rules Scotland even though she lives overseas as the wife of the King of France. When he dies, Mary returns to Scotland where her protestant brother James (Patrick McGoohan) has been running things, not necessarily with her best interests at heart. Elizabeth, considered by the Catholics to be "a bastard and a heretic," is uneasy about Mary's return. Fearing that Mary might marry a Catholic prince and get up a Catholic army to challenge the throne, Elizabeth engages in some long-distance intrigue to influence her match, and Mary winds up with the "degenerate" Lord Darnley (Timothy Dalton), who not only whores about and gets syphilis, but also has an occasional taste for men. The Protestant Scottish Lords plot against her, with some help from Darnley, but Mary's pregnancy complicates things, since with Elizabeth unmarried and childless, Mary's child would be sole heir to the throne. Darnley winds up isolated with the "pox" and Mary's lover Bothwell (Nigel Davenport) arranges for his murder, then marries her. Unfortunately, this turns into a scandal and the Scottish lords conspire against Mary, exiling her to England where she is more directly at the mercy of Elizabeth. It is discovered that Mary had tacitly OK'd a murder plot against Elizabeth, giving the Queen all the evidence she needs to imprison Mary and, eventually, to execute her, a chore she is not happy about since it means killing not only a blood relative but a legally-seated queen.

In the 1960's, there was a rash of big-budget historical pictures that were often marketed as "important" movies. They were in widescreen, in spectacular color, with a prestige (usually British) cast. Though they are mostly quite lovely to look at, I find them difficult to sit through because of the episodic nature of their plots, presented like a series of relatively bloodless historical tableaux. This one is a little more energetic than most, and though it does go rushing through the years quickly, it is not difficult to keep up with the narrative. Vanessa Redgrave was nominated for an Oscar for this role and she is indeed very good, as is Glenda Jackson, who is now a largely forgotten presence since she retired from acting in the mid 90's (I've been surprised how many people just a few years younger than me don't know who she is). McGoohan is just as good, though I wish he had more to do. Daniel Massey (Raymond Massey's son) is just as good and just as underused as Elizabeth's horse steward/lover. Trevor Howard is Elizabeth's main advisor, and Ian Holm has a choice role as an advisor of Mary's (and Dalton's occasional lover). In this movie, the two queens meet twice though apparently there is no evidence that they did in real life. No matter, their meetings provide both actresses with good showcase scenes. [Sundance]

No comments: